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Britten v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.

January 12, 2007


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, L-1418-05.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sapp-peterson, J.S.C. (temporarily assigned).



Argued December 6, 2006

Before Judges Lefelt, Parrillo and Sapp-Peterson.

Defendant insurer, Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, appeals the entry of orders denying its motion for summary judgment but granting plaintiff Kimberly Britten's cross-motion for summary judgment. The motion judge ruled that plaintiff was entitled to recover Personal Injury Protection (PIP) benefits under her personal automobile insurance policy as well as her mother's personal automobile insurance policy. The court rejected the defendant's contention that the anti-stacking provisions of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.2 preclude plaintiff from securing benefits under both policies. We reverse.

The facts are not disputed. Plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle accident on May 19, 2004, while operating her privately owned vehicle. This vehicle was insured by State National Insurance Company (SNIC). Under the terms of the policy, plaintiff selected $75,000 worth of PIP benefits. At the time of the accident, plaintiff resided with her mother, Janet Britten, who was the named insured on an automobile policy issued by defendant that included PIP benefits up to $250,000. Janet Britten's policy also extended coverage to her resident relatives, subject to exclusions. One such exclusion denies liability coverage and PIP benefits to resident relatives for injuries sustained as a result of an accident involving a vehicle owned by a resident family member other than Janet Britten.

As a result of the accident, plaintiff sustained injuries requiring numerous medical procedures. The medical bills associated with these injuries exceeded the $75,000 PIP benefits available under plaintiff's SNIC policy. As a result, plaintiff filed a claim with defendant seeking additional PIP benefits under her mother's policy. Defendant denied the claim.

Plaintiff filed a complaint on May 5, 2005, seeking declaratory relief against defendant, declaring that as a resident member of her mother's household, she was eligible to recover PIP benefits under her mother's policy in addition to the benefits she secured under her own personal auto insurance policy. In granting plaintiff's summary judgment cross-motion and denying defendant's summary judgment motion, the court found that as a resident family member:

[plaintiff] was already in a sense insured under the $250,000. She had a right as a household member to collect under the $250,000. What she did not have a right to collect on was that portion in which she had other insurance in which she was the primary insured. And so I agree that she is entitled to the coverage under her mother's policy less the insurance that she had purchased, the $75,000, which results in $175,000 worth of coverage under her mother's policy.

From this decision, defendant filed a timely appeal. Defendant contends the trial court failed to apply the applicable case law. A trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference. State v. Brown, 118 N.J. 595, 604 (1990); Dolson v. Anastasia, 55 N.J. 2, 7 (1969); Pearl Assurance Co. Ltd. v. Watts, 69 N.J. Super. 198, 205 (App. Div. 1961).

N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.2 authorizes PIP benefits to the named insured and resident members of the insured's household, provided the resident member is "not a named insured under an automobile insurance policy of his own." Recovery of PIP benefits is further circumscribed under this section. "No person shall recover personal injury protection benefits under more than one automobile insurance policy for injuries sustained in any one accident." Ibid. This provision is part of the Automobile Insurance Cost Reduction Act, (AICRA), N.J.S.A. 39:6A-1.1 to -35, enacted in 1998.

AICRA represents the most recent effort to provide comprehensive benefits to automobile accident victims at reduced costs. These efforts commenced in 1972 with enactment of the New Jersey Automobile Reparation Reform Act (No Fault) and have continued over the years, albeit without accomplishing the level of success envisioned.

In the area of PIP benefits, prior to AICRA, all underwriters of New Jersey auto insurance policies were required to include PIP coverage of $250,000. With the enactment of AICRA, the Legislature added ...

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