January 8, 2009
LYDIA RODRIGUEZ AND ERIKA MEDINA, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
METLIFE AUTO & HOME, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County, Docket No. L-103-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 16, 2008
Before Judges Graves and Grall.
Plaintiffs Lydia Rodriguez and Erika Medina appeal from an order dismissing their complaint for benefits under the underinsured motorist provision of an automobile insurance policy issued to Lydia Rodriguez by defendant MetLife Auto & Home. Acknowledging that the order granting summary judgment is consistent with Tyler v. N.J. Auto. Full Ins. Underwriting Ass'n, 228 N.J. Super. 463, 464-65 (App. Div. 1988), plaintiffs urge us to conclude that Tyler was wrongly decided.
Rodriguez was driving a car insured by MetLife when it was struck by a tractor trailer operated by Paul Corke and owned by P.C. Delivery. Rodriguez's daughter, Erika Medina, and granddaughter were passengers in the vehicle. Rodriguez and Medina were injured and Rodriguez's granddaughter was killed. Although the resulting accident involved several vehicles and multiple victims, Corke and P.C. Delivery were solely responsible.
Corke's insurance policy had a liability limit of $1,000,000. Nonetheless, the coverage was not sufficient to cover all of the claims. As a consequence, Rodriguez and Medina each recovered $7975, an amount less then the damages they sustained. Rodriguez's automobile insurance policy provided underinsured motorist coverage with a limit of $100,000 per person and $300,000 per accident. MetLife rejected Rodriguez's claim for benefits under her policy's underinsured motorist provisions.
Relying upon this court's decision in Tyler, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of MetLife and dismissed plaintiffs' complaint. In Tyler, this court interpreted the controlling statute, N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.1e, and concluded that its "plain meaning . . . is that underinsured motorist benefits are available if (and to the extent that) the tortfeasor's liability limits are lower than the limits of the underinsured motorist coverage contained in the plaintiff's policy." Tyler, supra, 228 N.J. Super. at 466. We held that N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.1e produces the same result if there is one injured claimant or many, or if the amount of damages exceed the tortfeasor's liability limits, or even if multiple claims against one tortfeasor are, because of his liability limits, settled for amounts which are individually less than the underinsured motorist coverage available from the claimants' policy. A tortfeasor is not underinsured relative to plaintiffs' damages, or relative to the judgment or judgments against him, but rather relative to the limits of the underinsured motorist coverage purchased by or for the person seeking recovery. [Ibid.]
Plaintiffs concede that the facts and policy provisions at issue in this case are not distinguishable in any material respect from those at issue in Tyler, and we are not persuaded by plaintiffs' arguments in favor of an interpretation of the law that differs from Tyler's holding. Plaintiffs overlook the Supreme Court's decision in French v. N.J. Sch. Bd. Ass'n Ins. Group, 149 N.J. 478, 483 (1997). In that case, the Supreme Court cited Tyler with approval, followed its reasoning and adopted its interpretation of N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.1e. French, supra, 149 N.J. at 483-84.
Plaintiffs were not entitled to benefits under Rodriguez's policy because the underinsured motorist coverage it included had a limit lower than the limit of the tortfeasor's liability coverage. Accordingly, the trial court's order granting summary judgment in favor of MetLife was proper in all respects.
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