May 18, 2012
COOPER HOSPITAL UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
THOMAS TEMPLETON, DEFENDANT, AND CURE AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Docket No. L-906-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted April 30, 2012
Before Judges Grall and Skillman.
Defendant Cure Automobile Insurance Company appeals from an order entered on July 8, 2011, which granted plaintiff Cooper Hospital's motion to take a voluntary dismissal under Rule 4:37-1(b) of its complaint asserting a claim for personal injury protection (PIP) benefits in order to submit that claim to arbitration.*fn1
The PIP claim involved in this appeal was based on medical services Cooper provided to Thomas Templeton, who had an automobile insurance policy issued by Cure, for personal injuries he suffered in a March 16, 2009 automobile accident. Cooper billed $205,794 for those services, which it submitted to Cure for payment as Templeton's assignee. However, Cure determined that the "usual, customary and reasonable" fee for those medical services was only $53,541.08. After it rejected a check in that amount issued by Cure, Cooper brought this action in the Law Division for the full $205,794.
Subsequently, the parties engaged in extensive discovery. At a case management conference, the trial court suggested that it would be more appropriate for Cooper's PIP claim to be submitted to binding arbitration rather than to be litigated in the Law Division. Cooper accepted this suggestion and filed a motion for a voluntary dismissal, which Cure opposed.
The trial court granted Cooper's motion, stating in a brief oral opinion:
. . . The application was done a bit late in the day, and if there was even a scintilla of gamesmanship that I thought was being played here I would deny the motion, but Cooper has an interest in getting its rather large bill paid. It has no reason to unnecessarily delay, and it seems to me both sides would benefit by having an arbitrator resolve the case who presumably would be better than me, all things being equal, because the arbitrators do these things all the time, and they have a much better sense as to -- within the industry of what's reasonable in terms of billing practices and what's not. And, as I say, the [Superior]
Court is already choking to a very large extent on a backlog of cases of which there is no realistic alternative forum.
Our review of a trial court's grant of leave to a plaintiff to voluntarily dismiss its complaint is limited to determining whether the court abused its discretion. See Shulas v. Estabrook, 385 N.J. Super. 91, 97 (App. Div. 2006). We find no such abuse in this case. Although this case was litigated for a substantial period of time in the Superior Court, Cooper's voluntary dismissal in order to pursue arbitration of its claim against Cure is consistent with the legislative policy expressed in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-1 to encourage binding arbitration of PIP disputes. See Coalition for Quality Health Care v. N.J. Dep't of Banking & Ins., 348 N.J. Super. 272, 309-13 (App. Div. 2002). Such arbitration also promotes the legislative objective "to minimize the workload placed upon the courts" in resolving disputes regarding PIP benefits. Gambino v. Royal Globe Ins. Co., 86 N.J. 100, 107 (1981) (quoting Automobile Insurance Study Commission, Reparation Reform for New Jersey Motorists at 24 (December 1971)). Thus, the trial court properly recognized that the judiciary's interest in diverting PIP disputes to arbitration militated in favor of granting Cooper's motion.
We also note that Cure appears to have derived a greater benefit than Cooper from the opportunity for discovery provided by the initial filing of Cooper's claim in the Superior Court, which Cure presumably will be able to rely upon in defending the claim before an arbitrator.
Therefore, even though Cooper undoubtedly should have initially sought to arbitrate its PIP claim, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that Cooper should be allowed even at a late stage of the litigation to submit its claim to arbitration rather than being forced to continue pursuit of that claim in the Superior Court.