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Johnson v. Republic Western Insurance Co.

March 16, 2007


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, L-4815-05.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Axelrad, J.T.C. (temporarily assigned).



Submitted: December 5, 2006

Before Judges Coburn, Axelrad and R.B. Coleman.

The issue in this case is what statute of limitations applies to a claim for medical expense benefits (MEB) asserted by a passenger injured on a bus owned and operated by New Jersey Transit. Plaintiff Jacqueline Johnson contends the six-year contract statute of limitations*fn1 applies because the motor bus PIP statute enacted in l99l mandating passenger MEB coverage, N.J.S.A. l7:28-1.6, contains no stated period of limitations. Defendant Republic Western Insurance Company, the carrier for New Jersey Transit, contends that the limitations period provided by the automobile PIP statute, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-13.1, should apply. Pursuant to that provision, an action for PIP benefits must be brought within four years, except where benefits have been previously paid, then an action must be brought within two years after the last payment of benefits.*fn2

The accident occurred on November 3, 2001, and the last medical bill paid by defendant was on February 6, 2003. Thus, under N.J.S.A. 39:6A-13.1, the latest time for filing a complaint would have been February 5, 2005. Plaintiff's complaint was filed on October 28, 2005. In lieu of filing an answer, Republic filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, R. 4:6-2(e), on the basis that Johnson's claim was barred by the limitations period set forth in the automobile PIP statute. Republic argued that the provisions of the motor bus PIP statute should be construed as part of an harmonious legislative plan and must be read in pari materia with the automobile PIP provisions. So reasoning, Republic urged that the failure to include a statute of limitations in N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.6 while creating a detailed limitations scheme under N.J.S.A. 39:6A-13.1, or to refer specifically to the automobile PIP statute of limitations, was a legislative oversight.

Johnson countered that such oversight should not be presumed, particularly when it would result in the loss of an important statutory entitlement. Johnson reasoned that the absence of a specified time deadline or any reference to the automobile PIP statute of limitations in N.J.S.A. l7:28-1.6 just as likely evidenced a legislative intent, or, at a minimum, an unspoken legislative approval, for the contract statute of limitations to apply for MEB asserted by a passenger injured on a bus. She urged the court not to rewrite this remedial statute to the detriment of an injured party.

The trial court was persuaded by Republic's argument of legislative oversight, recognizing that although both statutes are separate and distinct, they share the "goal of providing an ordered and predictable method for the payment of medical bills incurred as a result of a motor vehicle accident." Accordingly, the court concluded it would be "illogical and inconsistent to hold that the mere fact that a medical bill was incurred as a result of a bus accident, rather than an accident involving a private passenger automobile, would result in the application of inconsistent time periods in which to file suit for payment." The court concluded that acceptance of Johnson's argument would create unnecessary confusion and unreasonably prejudice those whose claims are made under the automobile PIP statute in favor of those whose claims are made under the motor bus PIP statute. Accordingly, the court found the time period for filing suit for MEB payment under N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.6 was governed by the limitations period contained in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-13.1, and entered an order dated April 3, 2006, dismissing Johnson's complaint for failing to timely file her medical coverage claim. This appeal ensued. We reverse.

It is undisputed that the motor bus PIP statute contains no stated period of limitations for MEB or express or implicit reference to the time deadlines of the automobile PIP statute. N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.6 provides:

a. Every owner, registered owner or operator of a motor bus registered or principally garaged in this State shall maintain medical expense benefits coverage, under provisions approved by the commissioner, for the payment of benefits without regard to negligence, liability or fault of any kind, to any passenger who sustained bodily injury as a result of an accident while occupying, entering into or alighting from a motor bus.

b. Medical expense benefits coverage shall include the payment of reasonable medical expenses in an amount not to exceed $250,000 per person per accident. In event of death, payments shall be made to the estate of the decedent.

Nor does N.J.S.A. 39:6A-13.1, which contains a detailed list of the types of policies, all of which relate to automobiles, subject to the PIP benefit deadline, reference N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.6. Moreover, we have not found any declaration of Legislative intent to allow the Title 39 MEB deadline to fill in the silence of Title l7.

We have only found "legislative oversight" and imported a provision of the automobile PIP statute into the statutes governing motor bus MEB by implication in a limited situation, which resulted in coverage to an injured passenger. In Park v. Park, 309 N.J. Super. 312 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 156 N.J. 381 (1998), passengers in an out-of-state bus were injured in New Jersey when the vehicle was struck by a tractor trailer. The bus insurer, authorized to do business in New Jersey, paid MEB to its passengers pursuant to our deemer statute, N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.4, under which automobile policies covering out-of-state vehicles are "deemed" to include coverage satisfying New Jersey's liability, PIP and UIM mandates. The insurer sought reimbursement from the owner ...

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