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Solorzano v. Sapunarich

June 23, 2006

ANDRES SOLORZANO, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
PETER SAPUNARICH, J&S DI FEO FORD, J&S FORD, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, L-1735-04.

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

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Argued October 25, 2005

Before Judges Coburn, Collester and S.L. Reisner.

The narrow question presented in this appeal is whether the operator of an uninsured motor scooter is foreclosed from seeking recovery for personal injuries suffered in an accident with an automobile. The accident occurred on November 4, 2003, at the intersection of Newark and Pavonia Avenues in Jersey City. An uninsured motor scooter operated by plaintiff Andres Solorzano collided with a Ford Explorer driven by defendant Peter Sapunarich, an employee of defendant J&S DiFeo Ford. Defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting that the suit was barred by N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5. The motion judge granted summary judgment, and this appeal followed. We reverse.

Under New Jersey law every owner of an automobile registered or principally garaged in this State must maintain a basic automobile policy which provides Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage for bodily injury suffered in an automobile injury or caused by an automobile. N.J.S.A. 39:6A-1; 39:6A-16. PIP coverage is no-fault insurance which, among other things, reimburses medical expenses incurred or wage losses sustained as a result of the automobile accident. N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4. Injured automobile drivers who are uninsured do not receive these benefits since they would draw on the no-fault accident insurance funds to which they did not contribute. Caviglia v. Royal Tours of America, 178 N.J. 460, 466-71 (2004). Accordingly, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5 bars suit by uninsured automobile operators as follows:

Any person who, at the time of an automobile accident resulting in injuries to that person, is required but fails to maintain medical expense benefits coverage mandated by [N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4] 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. [N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5.]

By excluding culpably uninsured automobile operators, the statutory intention is to effectuate insurance cost containment by giving "a very powerful incentive to comply with the compulsory insurance laws: obey automobile liability insurance coverage or lose the right to maintain a suit for both economic and non-economic injuries." Caviglia, supra, 178 N.J. at 471. An "automobile" is defined as:

[a] private passenger automobile of a private passenger or station wagon type that is owned or hired and is neither used as a public or livery conveyance for passengers nor rented to others with a driver; and a motor vehicle with a pickup body, a delivery sedan, a van, or a panel truck or a camper type vehicle used for recreational purposes owned by an individual or by husband and wife who are residents of the same household, not customarily used in the occupation, profession or business of the insured other than farming or ranching. [N.J.S.A. 39:6A-2(a).]

On its face this definition of "automobile" does not include a motor scooter. However, the motion judge held that the suit bar was applicable because she deemed it was the intent of the Legislature to prohibit recovery for operators of such uninsured vehicles. The judge reasoned:

[T]his Court finds . . . that the intent of the compulsory liability insurance laws is to insure that uninsured people do not operate motor vehicles on the roads of the State of New Jersey without consequences.

In this case, and as the Court says in Caviglia versus Royal Tours case, ... the provisions of the motor vehicle statute limiting causes of action for economic and non-economic losses were designed to affect the reduction or stabilization of the prices charged for automobile insurance and to streamline the judicial procedures involved in third-party insurance claims, citing to Gambino versus Royal Globe.

... [T]he Court finds that the Caviglia decision can be extended and should be extended to the case at bar. This was a plaintiff who operated an uninsured motor vehicle. He ...


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