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Martin v. Chhabra

January 21, 2005


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-9954-01.

Before Judges Kestin, Lefelt and Falcone.

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


Submitted November 30, 2004

Thirty-six-year-old plaintiff Howard Martin was involved in a motor vehicle accident with defendant Niraj Chhabra. Plaintiff owned and registered the automobile that was involved in the accident, but plaintiff's girlfriend insured the car, with plaintiff listed in the insurance policy as only one of the car's drivers. Plaintiff filed suit, seeking damages for his personal injuries, and now appeals from the trial court's summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's economic and non-economic claims under the verbal threshold. Plaintiff argues that he is not subject to his girlfriend's selection of the verbal threshold; even if he is subject to the threshold, he presented sufficient objective credible medical evidence of permanent injury and serious impact to satisfy the threshold; and the judge erred by dismissing his economic damage claims. We reject all of plaintiff's arguments, except we agree that his economic claims should not have been dismissed.

At the time of the accident, plaintiff was driving a 1991 Honda Accord owned by him and registered under his name. Allstate New Jersey Insurance Company insured the Honda, but the policy was issued to plaintiff's girlfriend, Carla Lewis, at a Jersey City address. The declaration page of the policy states that"[t]he'lawsuit threshold' option applies to your policy." It also lists the 1991 Honda as the only covered vehicle and"Carla" and"Howard" as the"driver(s)" of the covered vehicle, with only Carla listed as the"named insured(s)."

Plaintiff received personal injury protection (PIP) benefits from Allstate as an occupant of the Honda. He claims to have been insured only by virtue of his girlfriend's insurance policy and to not be covered for liability, PIP, or uninsured motorist protection when not in the insured vehicle. The record does not include any certification by plaintiff's girlfriend elaborating on who paid the premiums for the policy or why she insured a vehicle that she did not own.

Plaintiff denied living with his girlfriend in Jersey City, though he admitted to her house being"like a part of my home." However, plaintiff also asserted during his deposition that he lived with his sister in Irvington, and his driver's license indicates an Irvington address. Moreover, plaintiff claims to have a wife and three children in Jamaica.

On these facts, plaintiff argues the motion judge erred when she found that"plaintiff, as a named driver of the Allstate policy, is subject to all of the coverage afforded under it, including the verbal threshold option." We tend to agree with plaintiff on this preliminary point that the method chosen by the judge to apply the verbal threshold to plaintiff was ill founded.

N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8.1a provides, in pertinent part, that"[t]he tort option elected shall apply to the named insured and any immediate family member residing in the named insured's household.'Immediate family member' means the spouse of the named insured and any child of the named insured or spouse residing in the named insured's household, who is not a named insured under another automobile insurance policy." Therefore, plaintiff was neither the named insured nor an immediate family member of the named insured. See Ibarra v. Vetrano, 302 N.J. Super. 578, 581 (App. Div. 1997). The fact that the named insured, plaintiff's girlfriend, selected the verbal threshold cannot, under N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8.1, bind plaintiff.

However, without knowing precisely why plaintiff had his girlfriend insure his car, he is still subject to the verbal threshold based upon the uncontested facts present in this appeal. Plaintiff, as the owner of a vehicle"registered or principally garaged in this State," was compulsorily required to"maintain automobile liability insurance coverage," including medical expense benefits. N.J.S.A. 39:6A-3; N.J.S.A. 39:6A-3.1, 3.2 and 4; see Beaugard v. Johnson, 281 N.J. Super. 162, 168 (App. Div. 1995); Chalef v. Ryerson, 277 N.J. Super. 22, 26 (App. Div. 1994) (holding that because an out-of-state insured vehicle was principally garaged in New Jersey, the owner must maintain PIP coverage).

As the owner of the vehicle, plaintiff did not maintain medical expense benefits or any other insurance coverage for the automobile. Instead, he relied upon his girlfriend to insure and maintain the proper insurance coverages on the vehicle. Indeed, if the vehicle had been uninsured at the time of his accident, plaintiff would have been totally precluded from pressing any"cause of action for recovery of economic or non-economic loss." N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5.

But, the vehicle in which plaintiff allegedly suffered his economic and non-economic loss was not uninsured at the time of the accident. Luckily for plaintiff, his girlfriend had maintained insurance on the vehicle. Nevertheless, because plaintiff as the owner did not maintain medical expense coverage, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8 applies the verbal threshold to him.

N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8 provides, in pertinent part, that the verbal threshold"shall also apply to any person subject to section 14 of P.L.1985, c. 520 (C.39:6A-4.5)...." The public law section referenced in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8 provided in 1985 that persons failing to maintain medical expense benefits coverage were subject to the verbal threshold in"an action for recovery of non-economic loss." Although the Legislature in 1997 amended N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5 to its present form, which precludes all actions by unlawfully uninsured drivers of an uninsured vehicle whether based on economic or non-economic loss, L. 1997, c. 151, the 1985 Public Law reference in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8, applying the verbal threshold to persons subject to the 1985 version of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5, remained unchanged despite the 1997 amendment and all subsequent amendments to the No Fault Law, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-1 to -35."[T]he provisions introduced by [an] amendatory act should be read together with the provisions of the original section that were... left unchanged, in the amendatory act, as if they had been ...

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