On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 355 N.J. Super. 1 (2002).
In this appeal, plaintiff challenges the constitutionality of that part of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5a that precludes him from suing the tortfeasor for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, resulting from an automobile accident.
On October 13, 1997, plaintiff, an uninsured driver, suffered serious injuries as a result of an automobile accident with a tour bus operated by defendant Hector Mundo and owned by defendant Royal Tours of America, Inc.. His wife, Mabel Brun, a passenger, also suffered injuries. Plaintiff and Mabel sued for personal injury and property damage. Mabel settled her claims. Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that because plaintiff was uninsured, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-5a barred him from suing for economic and non-economic loss. At first the trial court granted defendants' motion, but on reconsideration reversed itself and reinstated plaintiff's claim. The trial court concluded that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5a violated the equal protection and due process guarantees of the Federal and State Constitutions. The Appellate Division affirmed.
The Supreme Court granted defendants' motion for leave to appeal.
HELD: We uphold N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5a on due process grounds because the statute does not implicate a fundamental right and it is rationally related to, and suitably furthers, a legitimate state interest. We also find that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5a does not violate the equal protection rights of uninsured drivers under the Federal or State Constitutions.
1. Under New Jersey's No Fault Act, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-1 to -35, All owners of motor vehicles registered or principally garaged in New Jersey are required to maintain minimum amounts of standard, basic, or special liability insurance coverage for bodily injury, death, and property damage caused by their vehicles. In addition, every policy must provide a package of "personal injury protection (PIP) benefits." The No Fault Act was intended to serve as the exclusive remedy for payment of out-of-pocket medical expenses arising from an automobile accident. The Act contained restrictions on the right to sue and was intended to: (1) provide benefits promptly and efficiently to all accident injury victims; (2) reduce or stabilize the cost of automobile insurance; (3) make insurance coverage readily available for automobile owners; and (4) streamline judicial procedures involved in third-party claims. In 1984, the Legislature enacted the Cost Containment Act in an attempt to control the spiraling cost of automobile insurance. That Act provided for the option of reduced premiums with higher deductibles and reduced benefits, and enlarged the class of people to be excluded from PIP coverage entirely. In 1985, the Legislature enacted N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5, which imposes restrictions on the right of an uninsured driver to sue for non-economic damages. In 1988, N.J.S.A.
39:6A-4.5 was amended and the new verbal threshold was introduced, requiring a more exacting standard of proving death or a severe bodily injury, and applied to all insured motorists seeking recovery for non-economic losses who did not select an alternative option. In 1997, the Legislature comprehensively amended N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5 to bar three classes of people from suing for personal injuries in automobile accident cases, including persons who operate automobiles without insurance, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5a, the provision under review here. N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5a advances a policy of cost containment by ensuring that an injured, uninsured driver does not draw on the pool of accident-victim insurance funds to which he did not contribute. The legislation thus gives the uninsured driver a very powerful incentive to comply with the compulsory insurance laws: obtain automobile liability insurance coverage or lose the right to maintain a suit for both economic and non-economic injuries. (Pp. 5-13)
2. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that no state may "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. If a statute is founded on some conceivable rational basis to promote a public purpose, it will survive constitutional scrutiny. In finding that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5a violated federal and state constitutional guarantees of substantive due process, the Appellate Division held that the absolute bar to recovery of non-economic damages was arbitrary and irrational. Section 4.5a did nothing more than subject the right to sue for non-economic damages in an automobile accident case to the condition that the injured motorist secure liability insurance. Preconditions on the filing of lawsuits are a common feature of our laws. An uninsured driver forfeits the right to sue by failing to comply with a necessary precondition to filing suit: maintaining insurance coverage. An uninsured motorist does not have a fundamental right to operate an automobile without liability insurance. The Legislature may act to give motorists incentives to purchase insurance so that a greater pool of insurance proceeds will be available for all accident victims. Alternatively, it may bar the claims of those who fail to contribute to the system by obtaining insurance. We cannot say that this is an irrational approach towards stabilizing or decreasing insurance costs for those who comply with our insurance laws. We therefore uphold N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5a on due process grounds because the statute does not implicate a fundamental right and it is rationally related to, and suitably furthers, a legitimate state interest. (Pp. 13-22)
3. Uninsured drivers do not belong to a class entitled to heightened protections under our Federal or State Constitutions. Uninsured drivers are not similarly situated to insured drivers because uninsured drivers are in violation of the law, and their counterparts are not. Subjecting uninsured drivers to disparate legislative treatment is justified by the public need in having all drivers conform with the No Fault Act. N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5a, therefore, does not violate the equal protection rights of uninsured drivers under the Federal or State Constitutions. (Pp. 23-27)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, VERNIERO, LAVECCHIA, ZAZZALI and WALLACE join in Justice ALBIN's opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin
Plaintiff Jorge O. Caviglia owned and operated an uninsured motor vehicle at the time he suffered injuries in an automobile accident. Although faultless in the accident, plaintiff was exposed to a mandatory fine of between $300 and $1,000, a period of community service, and a one-year license forfeiture because of his failure to carry automobile liability insurance. N.J.S.A. 39:6B-2. Because his vehicle was uninsured, plaintiff also was barred from suing the tortfeasor for recovery of his economic injuries. N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5a; Monroe v. City of Paterson, 318 N.J. Super. 505, 510 (App. Div. 1999). Plaintiff does not dispute the power of the State to impose quasi-criminal penalties or to deny the recovery of economic damages as a consequence of his driving an uninsured vehicle. Plaintiff only challenges the constitutionality of that part of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5a that precludes him from suing the tortfeasor for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering. He claims that the statutory bar violates federal and state constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process. We are satisfied that the Legislature did not exceed its constitutional authority in enacting N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5a.
On October 13, 1997, plaintiff was driving his Ford Tempo in North Bergen, with his wife, Mabel Brun, in the passenger's seat, when a bus operated by defendant Hector Mundo and owned by defendant Royal Tours of America, Inc. crossed over into plaintiff's lane of traffic, causing a collision. Plaintiff suffered serious injuries to his head, neck, back, and jaw as a result of the accident. Mabel also sustained personal injuries. On October 8, 1999, plaintiff and his wife filed suit for personal injury and property damage against defendants. Mabel settled her claims. In answers to interrogatories, plaintiff asserted that his injuries from the accident have prevented him from performing normal daily activities and have caused him severe pain and suffering.
Before the accident, for reasons not disclosed in the record, plaintiff's automobile insurance policy had been cancelled. Because of plaintiff's uninsured status at the time of the accident, defendants moved for summary judgment arguing that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5a barred plaintiff's suit. That statute denies a "cause of action for recovery of economic or non-economic loss" to the driver of an uninsured vehicle who is injured in an automobile accident. Ibid.
The trial court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment, but on reconsideration reversed itself and reinstated plaintiff's claim. The court concluded that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5a's bar of a right to recover non-economic damages by an uninsured, injured plaintiff violated the equal protection and due process guarantees of the Federal and State Constitutions. The Appellate Division affirmed, finding that the statute's absolute bar of a cause of action for non-economic damages to uninsured drivers seriously injured in automobile accidents did not bear "a real and substantial relationship" to the Legislature's no-fault objectives and arbitrarily discriminated against that class of drivers. Caviglia v. Royal Tours of Am., 355 N.J. Super. 1, 9 (2002).
We granted defendants' motion for leave to appeal. 175 N.J. 544 (2003). We now reverse.
In resolving the constitutional challenge to N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5a, we begin with a short primer in New Jersey's automobile liability insurance laws. All owners of motor vehicles registered or principally garaged in New Jersey are required to maintain minimum amounts of standard, basic, or special liability insurance coverage for bodily injury, death, and property damage caused by their vehicles. N.J.S.A. 39:6B-1.
That statute is intended to ensure that automobile accident victims are not left without the means to recover financially for their injuries from a judgment-proof tortfeasor. State v. McCourt, 131 N.J. Super. 283, 286 (App. Div. 1974). Every policy also must provide a package of "personal injury protection [PIP] benefits" that guarantees, without regard to fault, medical expense benefits to the named insured and his family household members in the event they suffer bodily injury in an automobile accident. N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.*fn1 This system of first-party self-insurance through PIP benefits was enacted pursuant to the New Jersey Automobile Reparation Reform Act (the No Fault Act) and is commonly referred to as no-fault insurance. L. 1972, c. 70; N.J.S.A. 39:6A-1 to -35; see also Fu v. Fu, 160 N.J. 108, 121 (1999) (describing transition from fault-based system to system of first-party coverage).
The No Fault Act was intended to serve as the exclusive remedy for payment of out-of-pocket medical expenses arising from an automobile accident. Roig v. Kelsey, 135 N.J. 500, 503, 512 (1994). Moreover, the act contained restrictions on the right to sue. For example, an injured driver with a standard liability policy was barred from suing the tortfeasor for the very PIP benefits ...