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Leggette v. Government Employees Insurance Company

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

May 30, 2017

KATHLEEN LEGGETTE, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES INSURANCE COMPANY ("GEICO"), Defendant-Respondent, and DERICK HARRIS, Defendant.

          Argued March 23, 2017

         On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-1585-14.

          Mitchell J. Makowicz, Jr., argued the cause for appellant (Blume, Forte, Fried, Zerres & Molinari, P.C., attorneys; Mr. Makowicz, on the brief).

          Elizabeth C. Chierici argued the cause for respondent (Chierici, Chierici & Smith, P.C., attorneys; Ms. Chierici, on the brief).

          Before Judges Lihotz, O'Connor and Whipple.

          OPINION

          LIHOTZ, P.J.A.D.

         Plaintiff Kathleen Leggette, a Virginia resident, was struck by a New Jersey licensed driver as she walked across a street in Princeton. Plaintiff appeals from the December 4, 2015 summary judgment dismissal of her declaratory judgment complaint against her insurer, defendant Government Employees Insurance Company (GEICO). In her complaint, plaintiff sought personal injury protection (PIP) benefits, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.4, commonly known as the "Deemer Statute, " which generally requires an insurer, authorized to do business in New Jersey, must provide PIP coverage for policies sold outside New Jersey, whenever the insured automobile is "used or operated" in this state.[1] Plaintiff maintained her Virginia policy was deemed to provide standard PIP coverage while her vehicle was in this state. The trial judge concluded the Deemer Statute was inapplicable to the circumstances presented. We affirm.

         For purposes of the summary judgment motion, the parties did not dispute any material facts. Plaintiff drove her Virginia registered 2005 Toyota Sequoia, insured by GEICO, to Princeton University to visit her daughter, a student. Plaintiff parked her vehicle in a Princeton University parking lot and began walking toward her daughter's dormitory. While in a crosswalk on Edwards Place, plaintiff was struck by an automobile. Consequently, plaintiff suffered injuries and incurred approximately $113, 825.47 in medical bills.

         Plaintiff filed a complaint and thereafter settled her claims against the driver of the automobile. She initiated this declaratory judgment action against defendant GEICO for PIP coverage to satisfy resultant medical expenses. Plaintiff alleged defendant, which is authorized to conduct business in New Jersey, was legally obligated, by the Deemer Statute, to provide minimum standard automobile insurance policy PIP benefits, covering injuries suffered when her out-of-state-insured vehicle was used in New Jersey. Defendant refuted this interpretation, maintaining plaintiff, as a pedestrian, was not using or operating her vehicle at the time of the accident, so coverage required by the Deemer Statute was not triggered.

         The parties filed competing motions for summary judgment. The trial judge accepted plaintiff's position, concluding the comprehensive insurance scheme provided PIP coverage to plaintiff, despite being a pedestrian. The judge denied defendant's motion for summary judgment and granted plaintiff's motion in an October 23, 2015 order.

         Defendant moved to vacate this order and sought dismissal of the complaint. Following oral argument, the Law Division judge reviewed the legislative history accompanying the adoption of the Deemer Statute and reconsidered his prior order. The judge vacated the October 23, 2015 order and concluded a party must be using or operating his or her vehicle at the time of the accident to trigger Deemer coverage. Plaintiff's appeal from the December 4, 2015 order followed.

         The narrow legal issue on appeal requires consideration of the Legislative intent in enacting N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.4. These principles guide our review.

         A matter of statutory interpretation is a legal issue requiring our de novo review. See, e.g., Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995); In re Declaratory Judgment Actions Filed by Various Muns., 446 N.J.Super. 259, 2 81 (App. Div. 2016), aff'd as modified on other grounds, 227 N.J. 508 (2017). Accordingly, "we accord no deference to the trial judge's interpretive conclusions." Brick Twp. PBA Local 2 30 v. Twp. of Brick, 446 N.J.Super. 61, 65 (App. Div. 2016).

         Our paramount goal in interpreting a statute is to ascertain the Legislature's intent, requiring we start with the statutory language. See, e.g., Maeker v. Ross, 219 N.J. 565, 575 (2014) ("The goal of all statutory interpretation 'is to give effect to the intent of the Legislature.'" (quoting Aronberg v. Tolbert, 207 N.J. 587, 597 (2011))); DiProspero v. Perm, 183 N.J. 477, 492 (2005) ("[G]enerally, the best indicator of that intent is the statutory language."). When interpreting a statute, we give words "their ordinary meaning and significance." Tumpson v. Farina, 218 N.J. 450, 467 (2014) (quoting DiProspero, supra, 183 N.J. at 492). Further, "we must construe the statute sensibly and consistent[ly] with the objectives that the Legislature sought to achieve." Nicholas v. Mynster, 213 N.J. 463, 480 (2013). "We will not adopt an interpretation of the statutory language that leads to an absurd result or one ...


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