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Lightner v. Solis

April 15, 2003


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, L-1530-00.

Before Judges Newman, Carchman and Parrillo.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Parrillo, J.A.D.


Argued March 19, 2003

Defendant Tomas Solis (defendant) appeals from the denial of his motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of plaintiff Gisele Lightner's automobile negligence personal injury lawsuit. At issue is N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5 which bars recovery for injuries sustained by the owner "as a result of an accident while operating an uninsured automobile." (Emphasis added). We affirm the denial of summary judgment, but remand for a plenary hearing in which the judge as fact finder is to determine the applicability of the statutory exclusion.

The facts viewed most favorably to plaintiff, the non- moving party, Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995), are as follows. On July 28, 1998, plaintiff was sitting in the passenger seat of a parked automobile - a 1989 Lincoln Mark VII - owned by and registered to her and Roxie Harris. Plaintiff got into the car to put on her makeup because it had a mirror, and to wait for Mr. Harris with whom she was going to walk to the store. She apparently had no intention of driving the automobile at that time. While she was seated inside the vehicle, it was rear-ended by a car driven by defendant. Plaintiff sustained bodily injuries.

At the time of the accident, plaintiff had failed to insure her vehicle, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-3 and 6B-1, and N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.1. It had previously been insured by Colonial Penn Insurance Company (Colonial), but the policy was canceled for non-payment of premium effective June 21, 1998, one month before the accident. Since then, plaintiff's automobile, although operable, had been "sitting there for awhile," only being moved from one side of the street to the other to avoid parking tickets.

Plaintiff sued defendant for damages consisting of non- economic loss, and Colonial, for personal injury protection (PIP) benefits. Summary judgment was subsequently granted in favor of Colonial, plaintiff's former PIP carrier, the court having found no insurance coverage existed at the time of the accident. Defendant then moved for summary judgment as well on the ground that under N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5, plaintiff is barred from recovering any damages because she had failed to insure her vehicle. In denying defendant's motion, the trial court reasoned:

Clearly, the language of that statute [N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5] says the word "operating." If the legislature intended -- and there's no question here that plaintiff was uninsured -- but the issue in this case is whether or not she was an operator of the vehicle. She was in the vehicle, apparently, allegedly on the passenger side with no intention to operate the vehicle. It seems like that's . . . at this point is a question of fact that may be developed at the time of trial, but there's nothing before me that would -- that gives me the right to rule that she was an operator at the time. That might be a question of fact at the time of trial.

However, if the legislature wanted to include language "owner or operator," then she certainly would have fallen within the purview of that statute, and her claim would be barred. But the statute only talks about operating -- operating an uninsured automobile.

Based on that, I cannot expand the statute beyond. I do not find that the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company case, [334 N.J. Super. 400 (Law Div. 2000)], which . . . barred PIP or UM coverage, which clearly applies to someone who's uninsured, and clearly stands for that proposition, can be expanded to include a claim for non-economic loss against a third-party.

In light of the clear and unambiguous language of the statute dealing with the statute [summary judgment] will be denied. Thereafter, the parties agreed to the extent of plaintiff's damages and defendant's liability, and accordingly, judgment was entered in favor of plaintiff in the amount of $15,000. This appeal follows from the denial of defendant's motion for summary judgment.

Defendant contends that plaintiff is precluded by N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) from recovering any damages because the undisputed facts demonstrate that she was the owner of an uninsured motor vehicle that was in operation in and around the time of the accident. Plaintiff counters that because a rational jury could determine that her vehicle was not in fact operating at the time of the accident, denial of summary judgment in this case was appropriate.

Because plaintiff's lawsuit is based on the alleged negligent operation of a motor vehicle, it implicates the New Jersey Automobile Insurance Cost Reduction Act (AICRA), N.J.S.A. 39:6A-1 to -35. Specifically, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) provides that a person "shall have no cause of action for recovery of economic or non-economic loss sustained as a result of an accident while operating an uninsured automobile." *fn1 (emphasis added.) The issue in this case is whether plaintiff's uninsured motor vehicle was being "operated" within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a). We begin our analysis by noting that "'the meaning of a statute must . . . be sought in the language in which the act is framed, and if that is plain, . . . the sole function of the courts is to enforce it according to its terms.'" Sheeran v. Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co., Inc., 80 N.J. 548, 556 (1979) (quoting Caminetti v. United States, 242 U.S. 470, 485, 37 S. Ct. 192, 194, 61 L. Ed. 442, 452 (1917)). However, when the meaning of a word used in a statute is not explicit, or where the literal application of the word suggests more than one arguable meaning, the court's function is to ascertain the Legislature's purpose in enacting the statute. State v. Sutton, 132 N.J. 471, 479 (1993). Dep't of Health v. Sol Schnoll Dressed Poultry Co., 102 N.J. Super. 171, 175 (App. Div. 1968). To that end, "'words used may be expanded or limited according to the manifest reason and obvious purpose of the law. The spirit of the legislative direction prevails over the literal sense of the terms.'" New Capitol Bar & Grill Corp. v. Employment Security Div., 25 N.J. 155, 160 (1957) (citing Alexander v. New Jersey Power & Light Co., 21 N.J. 373, 378 (1956)). The legislative purpose must be derived from an overall understanding of the words utilized and their relationship to other related provisions. State v. Afanador, 134 N.J. 162, 172 (1993). ...

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