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Do the Families of Uninsured Drivers Deserve Compensation? The New Jersey Supreme Court Says No

On August 29, 2011, the Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled that a statute barring uninsured motorists injured in automobile accidents from recovering also applied to the heirs of insured drivers who were killed as a result of an automobile accident. According to the New Jersey Law Journal, the Court ruled that an heir cannot initiate a wrongful death action on behalf of a decedent who was killed as a result of an automobile accident, if that decedent was an uninsured motorist. The statutory law that the court relied on in its decision was N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a). It is quoted below:

“Any person who, at the time of an automobile accident resulting in injuries to that person, is required but fails to maintain medical expense benefits coverage mandated by section 4 of P.L.1972, c. 70 (C.39:6A-4) , section 4 of P.L.1998, c. 21 (C.39:6A-3.1) or section 45 of P.L.2003, c.89 (C.39:6A-3.3) shall have no cause of action for recovery of economic or noneconomic loss sustained as a result of an accident while operating an uninsured automobile.”

Although this statutory language only refers to the right of an injured party to bring suit, the court determined in its decision that there is no legislative intent to suggest that the heirs of a deceased party have any greater rights than that party would have had if he were brining suit on his own behalf.

The New Jersey Supreme Court laid down this decision in Sheila Aronberg v. Wendell Tolbert, et al. Sheila Aronberg is the mother of Lawrence Aronberg, who died when his car was struck from behind on the New Jersey Turnpike on Sept. 15, 2005, by a tractor-trailer. As a result of her son’s death in this accident, Sheila Aronberg sued both the truck’s owner, Fleetwood Trucking Company, and the truck’s driver, Wendell Tolbert, under New Jersey’s Survivor Act and the state’s Wrongful Death Act.

Prior to the accident, Lawrence Aronberg’s automobile insurance policy with Allstate insurance company had been cancelled because of lack of payment. Because Lawrence was uninsured at the time of the accident, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a), the Superior Court judge dismissed the survivor claim, but allowed the wrongful death action to proceed. The Superior Court’s rationale for allowing the wrongful death action to proceed in the face of the statute was that the wrongful death claim belonged to the heirs, not the decedent. Therefore, the claim was not barred by the statute.

However, the Supreme Court of New Jersey disagreed. Justice Barry Albin, the author of the court’s decision, concluded that the language of the statute clearly suggested that the Legislature intended to nonsuit both uninsured drivers and their heirs. According to Justice Albin, “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.”

The goal of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a), which is artfully expressed by Judtice Albin above, is of course is a laudable goal. However, it begs the question: Is denying rights in order to incentivize those to obtain insurance the correct means to that end?

On the one hand, it is a very important state goal or objective to insure that motorists are insured. It is an issue of public safety and welfare. The state must insure that all of its citizens are protected. As an attorney who represents those who have been injured in automobile accidents, I recognize the importance of insurance. However, it is because I am a personal attorney that this Supreme Court ruling gives me pause.

In essence, the plaintiff here is being denied relief because he (her son did not have insurance) did not have insurance, despite that fact that the accident was not caused by his actions. It seems inequitable to deny relief in this case. It would be one thing if the plaintiff was responsible for his own injuries. But here, this was not the case.

As an Atlanta personal injury lawyer who handles wrongful death and automobile accident cases for plaintiffs, I understand the New Jersey Legislators’ intent, but ultimately, I question the harsh and seemingly inequitable means by which this end is sought.