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Caballero v. Martinez

May 18, 2006

VICTOR MANUEL CABALLERO, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
RICARDO MARTINEZ; LEROY SMITH; KAREN L. SUTER, COMMISSIONER OF INSURANCE OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY; "JOHN DOE I-X" AND "JANE ROE I-X" (SAID NAMES BEING FICTITIOUS), DEFENDANTS, AND THE UNSATISFIED CLAIM AND JUDGMENT FUND BOARD, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 376 N.J. Super. 175 (2005).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

In this appeal, the Court must determine whether an undocumented alien can be a "a resident of this State" such that he or she is eligible to receive benefits from the Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund, N.J.S.A. 39:6-61 to -91.

Victor Manuel Caballero, a national of Mexico, came to New Jersey as an undocumented alien in March 2001. His brother, father and two cousins were already in New Jersey; his mother followed soon after. Caballero came to New Jersey to work for at least five years to save money to help his family. In August 2001, he was seriously injured in an automobile accident while riding as a passenger in an uninsured, unregistered vehicle. Caballero's co-worker, Ricardo Martinez, was driving him to work when Martinez fell asleep at the wheel and struck a parked tractor-trailer. Caballero underwent surgery for injuries to his abdomen and intestines and was hospitalized for a week. He has incurred approximately $38,300 in medical bills and $1,482 in net lost wages. When the accident occurred, Caballero was 17 years old, did not own a car or have a driver's license, and was not covered by health or automobile liability insurance. None of Caballero's family members had insurance under which he could seek recovery.

Prior to the accident, Caballero repaired computers for 14 to 15 hours a day and earned about $400 per week. He returned to work six weeks after the accident and is still employed at the same computer store. Some of Caballero's injuries are permanent. He works fewer hours than before the accident and can no longer lift heavy computers. He cannot run, has difficulty sleeping because of abdominal pain and experiences pain in the area of his surgery during cold weather. At the time that Caballero filed this appeal, he was living with his parents and girlfriend in Lakewood, New Jersey. He states that he will stay in New Jersey for as long as he can, "[a]s long as they don't deport me."

Caballero initiated claims against various individuals including the Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund (UCJF), a trust fund for victims of motor-vehicle accidents involving uninsured and hit-and-run motorists. Defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis that Caballero is not a "Qualified person" eligible for benefits under the UCJF because he is not a "resident" of New Jersey. The trial court concluded, in an opinion published at The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Zazzali

Argued November 7, 2005

Plaintiff Victor Manuel Caballero, a national of Mexico, came to New Jersey as an undocumented alien when he was seventeen years-old. At the time, his brother and father were already in New Jersey, and his mother followed soon thereafter. All three also are undocumented aliens. Caballero's original purpose in coming to New Jersey was to work for at least five years to save enough money to live a comfortable life in Mexico. After he had lived in New Jersey for less than five months, Caballero was involved in an automobile accident while riding as a passenger in an uninsured, unregistered vehicle.

In this appeal, we must decide whether an undocumented alien is eligible to receive benefits from the Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund (UCJF or Fund), N.J.S.A. 39:6-61 to -91, for injuries suffered in a motor vehicle accident. To obtain relief from the UCJF, a claimant must be a "Qualified person," meaning that he or she must be "a resident of this State." N.J.S.A. 39:6-62. The trial court held, and the Appellate Division affirmed, that an undocumented alien cannot form the requisite intent to establish residency for purposes of the UCJF. We reverse and hold that an undocumented alien can form the requisite intent. We further find that Caballero had such intent at the time of the accident and therefore had established residency for purposes of entitlement to UCJF benefits.

I.

Caballero's family first began immigrating to the United States in 1996, when his brother Sandro came from Mexico to New Jersey to live with cousins in Bradley Beach. Sandro came to New Jersey to have a better life, has continuously worked here, prefers to live in the State permanently, and has never returned to Mexico, although he recognizes that he will have to return if deported. Caballero's father arrived in 1999, settling in Belmar, New Jersey, close to Sandro's home. He also works in New Jersey and has never returned to Mexico. Caballero's mother arrived in 2003, at which time she moved in with her husband, plaintiff's father. Caballero himself illegally crossed the border into the United States in March 2001 and then flew from Los Angeles to New Jersey. He moved into the Bradley Beach apartment where his brother was living with two of their cousins.

Caballero testified that he came to New Jersey out of "necessity" because there were no good-paying jobs in the Mexican town where he lived. He stated that he intended to stay in New Jersey for at least five years to save money to help his family. On arrival, he commenced employment at a restaurant. After two months at the restaurant, Caballero switched to a job repairing computers, earning around $400 per week in contrast with the six dollars per day that he earned in Mexico. At the time, Caballero's co-worker, Ricardo Martinez, picked him up by automobile at around 5:00 a.m. each day to go to the computer store where Caballero worked fourteen to fifteen hours a day.

In August 2001, less than five months after his arrival in New Jersey and about two weeks after he began employment at the computer store, Caballero was on his way to work as a passenger in Martinez's vehicle when Martinez fell asleep at the wheel. The car veered off the roadway and struck a parked tractor-trailer. Caballero was transported to Jersey Shore Medical Center where he underwent surgery for injuries to his abdomen and intestines. He remained hospitalized for approximately one week and did not return to work until six weeks after the accident. As a result of the accident, Caballero incurred approximately $38,300 in medical bills and $1,482 in net lost wages. Caballero was seventeen years-old when the accident occurred, did not own a car or have a driver's license, and was not covered by health or automobile liability insurance. Martinez's vehicle was neither registered nor insured, and none of Caballero's family members had insurance under which he could seek recovery.

Caballero is still employed at the same computer store but works fewer hours than before the accident and, because of his injury, can no longer lift heavy computers. Further, he cannot run, has difficulty sleeping because of abdominal pain, experiences pain in the area of his surgery during cold weather, and cannot regularly eat many of the foods that he enjoyed before the accident. Caballero's doctor certified that some of his injuries are permanent in nature. At the time that Caballero filed this appeal, he was living with his parents and ...


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