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Sheila Aronberg, As General Administratrix and Administratrix Ad v. Wendell Tolbert and Fleetwood Taggart D/B/A Fleetwood Trucking

August 29, 2011

SHEILA ARONBERG, AS GENERAL ADMINISTRATRIX AND ADMINISTRATRIX AD PROSEQUENDUM OF THE ESTATE OF LAWRENCE R. ARONBERG, DECEASED, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
WENDELL TOLBERT AND FLEETWOOD TAGGART D/B/A FLEETWOOD TRUCKING, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, AND ALLSTATE NEW JERSEY INSURANCE COMPANY, DEFENDANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin

SYLLABUS

(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).

Sheila Aronberg v. Wendell Tolbert, et al.

(A-9-10) (066414)

Argued March 14, 2011 -- Decided August 29, 2011

ALBIN, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

This case involves the interplay between N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a), which bars a lawsuit for personal injuries by an uninsured motorist, and N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1 to -6, the Wrongful Death Act. Ultimately, the Court must determine whether the heirs of an uninsured motorist killed in an automobile accident have a rightful claim under the Wrongful Death Act or whether N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) extinguishes that claim, just as it did the survival action.

On September 15, 2005, Lawrence Aronberg was driving southbound on the New Jersey Turnpike in a Volkswagon Jetta when a tractor trailer careened into the rear of his car, killing him. The truck was operated by Wendell Tolbert and owned by Fleetwood Taggart (Fleetwood Trucking). On the day of the fatal accident, Aronberg, then thirty-four years old, was an uninsured motorist. Just three weeks earlier, Allstate New Jersey Insurance Company (Allstate) had cancelled Aronberg's automobile insurance policy because of his failure to keep his premiums current.

On January 19, 2007, plaintiff Sheila Aronberg, as General Administratrix and Administratrix ad Prosquendum of her son's Estate, filed a survivorship and wrongful death action against defendants Tolbert and Fleetwood Trucking. The survivorship claim demanded damages for pain and suffering endured by Aronberg before his death and payment of his medical and funeral expenses. The wrongful death claim demanded damages for the loss of Aronberg's "services, society, comfort, guidance and support" to his mother and brother. The Survivor's Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-3, permits, for the benefit of the decedent's estate, an appointed representative to file any personal cause of action that decedent could have brought had he lived. In contrast, the Wrongful Death Act provides to decedent's heirs a right of recovery for pecuniary damages for their direct losses as a result of their relative's death due to the tortious conduct of another.

N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) provides that any person who fails to maintain statutorily required no-fault insurance "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." The trial court held that this statutory bar applied to the survival claim, but not to the wrongful death action. The court found that the Wrongful Death Act granted heirs an independent right of recovery, regardless of the decedent's failure to procure insurance. Relying on Miller v. Estate of Sperling, 166 N.J. 370 (2001), the court noted that the wrongful death "claim belongs to the deceased's beneficiaries" and that plaintiff could assert the claim even though her son did "not have a viable cause of action." Thus, the court dismissed only the survival claim that would have inured to the benefit of the son's estate.

The Appellate Division granted defendants' motion for leave to appeal and in a split decision affirmed. The majority concluded that the uninsured-motorist-lawsuit bar in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) should apply differently to the Wrongful Death and Survivor Acts because the two Acts serve different purposes. The panel found "nothing in the language of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) that supports the conclusion that the Legislature intended to target innocent family members," who are the beneficiaries under the Wrongful Death Act, for the decedent's culpable act of driving while uninsured. Like the trial court, the majority relied on Miller v. Estate of Sperling, for the proposition "that a wrongful death action can be viable under circumstances in which a survival action is barred." As further support, the majority cited to the two inherent goals of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a): "to punish the uninsured driver and to create an incentive to comply with compulsory insurance laws." The majority found that neither of those goals would be furthered by extending the bar to "innocent family members."

In his dissent, Judge Fisher stated that he would reverse "because N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) unmistakably declares that no cause of action arises when injuries are sustained by a person operating an uninsured vehicle, and the wrongful death statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1, links the viability of a wrongful death action to the" decedent's ability to have "maintain[ed] an action for damages" had he not died. Judge Fisher did not see why N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) would bar a survival action but not a wrongful death action. In addition, Judge Fisher distinguished Miller, noting that this Court merely rejected the "anomalous possibility that a wrongful death action could be time-barred before it ever accrued" -- and the present case presents "a quite different problem."

The Supreme Court granted defendants' motion for leave to appeal. The Court also granted the motions of the New Jersey State Bar Association and the Insurance Council of New Jersey to participate as amici curiae.

HELD: When an uninsured motorist's cause of action is barred by N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a), an heir has no right of recovery under the Wrongful Death Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1 to -6.

1. The issue before the Court is simply a matter of statutory interpretation. The Court's aim in interpreting a statute is to give effect to the intent of the Legislature and only if there is ambiguity does the Court turn to extrinsic evidence. On its face, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) deprives an uninsured motorist of the right to sue for any loss caused by another, regardless of fault. The statute's self-evident purpose is not to immunize a negligent driver from a civil action, but to give the maximum incentive to all motorists to comply with this State's compulsory no-fault insurance laws. In this case, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) must be construed in conjunction with the Wrongful Death Act. To support a wrongful death action, there must be a "death . . . caused by a wrongful act . . . such as would, if death had not ensued, have entitled the person injured to maintain an action for damages resulting from the injury." Here, had Aronberg lived, he would not have been entitled "to maintain an action for damages resulting from the injury,"

N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1, because, as an uninsured motorist, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) would have barred his cause of action. A plain-language reading of the Wrongful Death Act indicates that the heir's cause of action is therefore likewise barred. (pp. 11-15)

2. The present version of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) is animated by deterrence and cost-containment rationales. The statute is a very blunt tool in coercing compliance with the State's mandatory insurance laws. An uninsured motorist driving with the greatest of care who is struck by a reckless or drunk driver will have no basis for seeking relief from the culpable party. Some may think that such a result is too draconian and not necessary to enforce compliance with the No Fault Act. However, it is not within the Court's province to second guess the policymaking decisions of the Legislature when no constitutional principle is at issue. (pp. 15-18)

3. Under the common law, if the victim died, his right to bring a cause of action against the tortfeasor died with him. The evident intention of the Wrongful Death Act was to place families who lost a close family relative -- because of the acts of a tortfeasor -- in no worse position economically than if the relative had lived. The statutory language does not suggest that a claim that a victim cannot bring in life can only spring forth in the event of his death. Aronberg, as an uninsured driver, could not have brought a claim against the alleged tortfeasor as a consequence of the statutory bar. His heirs do not have any greater right than Aronberg possessed himself. In light of the similarity between the language of the Survivor's Act and the Wrongful Death Act, it would be anomalous to apply the uninsured-motorist bar to a survivor's action but not a wrongful death action. Just as the estate in a survivor's action has no better claim than Aronberg had in life, so too Aronberg's mother in a wrongful death action possesses no better claim than her son had he lived. Nothing in Miller v. Estate of Sperling contradicts this straightforward result. Unlike the wife in Miller, Aronberg did not even have a viable claim. Therefore, under the plain language of N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1, Aronberg's mother likewise has no right to maintain a wrongful death action. (pp. 18-22)

4. The plain language of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) and N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1, when read together and in harmony with each other, lead to the ineluctable result that Aronberg's mother cannot proceed with an action based on the wrongful death of her son because her son, based on his uninsured status, could not have maintained an action against the alleged tortfeasor. The Legislature has determined that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a)'s lawsuit bar applies to the decedent's next of kin in a wrongful death action. The Court cannot ignore the relevant statutory language to reach a more sympathetic result for plaintiff. (pp. 22-24)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for the entry of an order dismissing plaintiff's wrongful death action.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, RIVERA-SOTO, and HOENS join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion.

Argued March 14, 2011

JUSTICE ALBIN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, a mother brought a survival and wrongful death action on behalf of the estate of her son, an uninsured motorist who was killed by the alleged negligence of another driver. The other driver and his employer (defendants) claimed that the lawsuit was barred by N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a). That statute provides that any person who fails to maintain statutorily required no-fault insurance "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(a).

The trial court held that the statutory bar applied to the survival claim, but not to the wrongful death action. The court found that the Wrongful Death Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1 to -6, granted heirs an independent right of recovery, regardless of the decedent's failure to procure insurance. Thus, the court dismissed only the survival claim that would have inured to the benefit of the son's estate. The Appellate Division granted defendants' motion for leave to appeal and in a split decision affirmed. We granted leave to appeal and now reverse.

When an uninsured motorist's cause of action is barred by N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a), an heir has no right of recovery under the Wrongful Death Act. Under the plain language of the Act, the mother in this case can recover in her lawsuit only if her son would have been "entitled . . . to maintain an action for damages resulting from the injury" had "death . . . not ensued." N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1. Because her son, an uninsured motorist, could not have maintained a cause of action had he lived due to the statutory bar in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a), his heirs cannot recover under the Wrongful Death Act.

I.

A.

On September 15, 2005, Lawrence Aronberg was driving southbound on the New Jersey Turnpike in a Volkswagon Jetta when a tractor trailer careened into the rear of his car, killing him. The truck was operated by Wendell Tolbert and owned by Fleetwood Taggart (Fleetwood Trucking). On the day of the fatal accident, Aronberg, then thirty-four-years old, was an uninsured motorist. Just three weeks earlier, Allstate New Jersey Insurance Company (Allstate) had cancelled the automobile insurance policy issued to Aronberg because of his failure to keep his premiums current.*fn1

B.

On January 19, 2007, plaintiff Sheila Aronberg, as General Administratrix and Administratrix ad Prosquendum of her son's Estate, filed a survivorship and wrongful death action against defendants Tolbert and Fleetwood Trucking. The complaint alleged that Tolbert's negligence in operating the tractor trailer caused her son's death. The survivorship claim demanded damages for the pain and suffering endured by Aronberg before his death and payment of his medical and funeral expenses. The wrongful death ...


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