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Wyche v. Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund of the State of New Jersey

March 8, 2006

RUSSELL WYCHE,*FN1 PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
UNSATISFIED CLAIM AND JUDGMENT FUND OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT, AND
GE AUTO INSURANCE PROGRAM AND GE PROPERTY AND CASUALTY INS., CO., DEFENDANT.
RUSSELL WYCHE, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
UNSATISFIED CLAIM AND JUDGMENT FUND OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT, AND
GE AUTO INSURANCE PROGRAM AND GE PROPERTY AND CASUALTY INS., CO., DEFENDANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, MONL-4963-01.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: King, P.J.A.D. (retired and temporarily assigned on recall).

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Argued February 16, 2006

Before Judges Fall, Grall and King.

The principle issue in these appeals concerns the interface of the Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund Law (the Fund), N.J.S.A. 39:6-60 to -91, with R. 4:21A governing arbitration of certain civil actions. The personal injury claimant here, Russell Wyche, sought to expand the $15,000 statutory limit of the Fund through the mechanism of court-mandated arbitration under R. 4:21A. Judge Gilroy would not interpret the court rules to increase the Fund's $15,000 statutory limit of liability set by the Legislature. We agree with him and affirm. On the Fund's appeal, asserting that claimant's attempt to recover more than the $15,000 was frivolous, meriting R. 1:4-8 sanctions, we also affirm. The judge correctly refused to impose frivolous litigation sanctions on plaintiff, deeming his novel effort here a reasonable attempt to extend existing law, rather than a baseless attempt to harass the Fund. We thus affirm on both appeals.

I

These are the facts pertinent to the issues on appeal. on January 2, 2001 Wyche was struck and seriously injured by an unknown motor vehicle in Asbury Park. At the time of the accident he was not insured for motor vehicle purposes. He lodged a timely claim with the Fund. N.J.S.A. 34:6-65.

Plaintiff brought suit and on May 21, 2004 the case was submitted to R. 4:21A arbitration. The arbitrator found a gross award of $150,000, allocated 20% of causative fault to the plaintiff, and reached a net award of $120,000, exclusive of the medical bills, $45,611. Neither party filed a rejection of the award and a demand for trial de novo. R. 4:21A-6(b)(1). On June 30 plaintiff filed a motion to confirm the arbitration award, R. 4:21A-6(b)(3). The Fund told the court it did not object to the confirmation of the award but asked that the confirmation order be limited to $15,000, the Fund's statutory obligation.

On July 19 the Fund filed a cross-motion asking that it be directed to pay only $15,000. This cross-motion was mistakenly assigned to another judge, unfamiliar with the matter. Meanwhile, Judge Gilroy had not received any objection to the Fund's letter of July 6 and assumed the proposal was acceptable to the plaintiff. On July 23 Judge Gilroy ordered the Fund to pay $15,000, the liability limit under N.J.S.A. 39:6-69(a). The judge later vacated this order and set a hearing on August 26. The Fund then demanded plaintiff withdraw his motion to confirm the award under peril of R. 1:4-8 sanctions. The judge heard oral argument and confirmed the award of $120,000 and on September 13 ordered payment of $15,000.

II

Plaintiff claims that the Fund's failure to file for a trial de novo to counter plaintiff's request to confirm the arbitration award should result in the right to payment of the full amount allowed by the arbitrator -- $120,000 net, plus interest and costs, even though such a result would contravene the statutory obligation to pay no more than $15,000. We disagree.

The Fund was established in 1952 to provide personal injury compensation to individuals who are injured or suffer property damage through no fault of their own and are without recourse to conventional motor vehicle insurance benefits. Craig & Pomeroy, New Jersey Auto Insurance Law § 30.1 at 489 (Gann, 2006).

However, the Fund was not intended to replace or serve as an insurance policy. Ibid. The intention of the statutes is not to "make every claimant whole but rather reflects an intention to provide some basic measure of relief . . . in order to forestall the possible hardship attendant upon a claimant's absorption of the entire economic loss occasioned by the accident." Holmberg v. Aten, 68 N.J. Super. 73, 79 (App. Div. 1961); see Dixon v. Gassert, 26 N.J. 1, ...


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