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Marleny Vega v. 21st Century Insurance Company

March 13, 2013

MARLENY VEGA, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
21ST CENTURY INSURANCE COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-9542-11.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher, P.J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Submitted February 12, 2013

Before Judges Fisher, Waugh and St. John.

The opinion of the court was delivered by FISHER, P.J.A.D.

In this appeal, we revisit whether an insurer's timely letter rejecting an arbitration award is sufficient to trigger its right to nullify an uninsured motorist arbitration award. In reversing, we reject the argument that a party is required to exactly assert its "demand for a trial" to nullify an award and conclude that, in these circumstances, the insurer's "rejection of the arbitration award" was sufficient.

The record reveals that plaintiff Marleny Vega claimed to have been injured when her motor vehicle, which was insured by defendant 21st Century Insurance Company, was struck by a hitand-run driver. She made a claim under the policy's uninsured-motorist (UM) endorsement, and the parties proceeded to arbitration, which resulted, on June 16, 2011, in an award of $87,500.

Because the award exceeded the minimum-liability coverage required by law, "either party" had the right to "demand the right to a trial on all issues," provided that the demand was made in writing within thirty days of the arbitrators' decision. When this policy provision is properly triggered, the award is nullified and the claimant must resort to filing a complaint; without such a demand, the award becomes "binding."

On July 8, 2011, within thirty days of the award, 21st Century's attorney wrote to Vega's attorney, stating:

Pursuant to the provisions of the 21st Century Insurance Policy . . . the UM Arbitration Award of June 16, 2011 is hereby rejected. Kindly be guided accordingly and contact the undersigned to discuss possible settlement of this matter.

A few months later, Vega filed this action, not for damages, but for an order enforcing the arbitration award, claiming the July 8 letter did not "demand a trial" and, thus, by operation of the insurance policy's terms, the award became binding.

The matter was summarily decided on the return date of an order to show cause. The judge found the language of the July 8 letter did not satisfy the requirements of the policy and entered judgment in Vega's favor. 21st Century appeals.

Because there were no contested facts, the judge correctly determined that the matter could be decided summarily. Our review of the judge's legal decision, of course, is plenary. Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995); Polarome Int'l, Inc. v. Greenwich Ins. Co., ...


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