Since its passing, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) has encouraged responsibility amongst motorists by depriving “an uninsured motorist of the right to sue for any loss caused by another, regardless of fault.”[i] A New Jersey state appeals court recently set precedent by declining to extend the statute to an uninsured motorist who was killed when his already-crashed and inoperable car was struck a second time while he was trying to retrieve his phone from inside the car.[ii] In Memudu v. Gonzalez, defendants Joshua M. Gonzalez and W. Campbell Holdings and its related entities (“defendants”) appealed from an order denying their motion for summary judgment.[iii] The appellate court affirmed the denial of the motion for summary judgment and found the statutory bar pursuant to N.J.S.A 39:6A-4.5(a) is not applicable because decedent was not operating his vehicle.[iv]
On October 26, 2019, decedent was driving on the New Jersey Turnpike when defendant Khawaja Hameed (“A-1 defendants”) rear-ended decedent’s vehicle.[v] Of note, after the accident, decedent’s vehicle was completely disabled.[vi] Approximately 30 minutes after the initial accident, decedent began searching for his cell phone inside his vehicle.[vii] As decedent was searching for his cell phone, Defendant Gonzalez crashed into the front passenger side of decedent’s vehicle and decedent was pronounced dead at the scene.[viii]
Decedent’s estate (“plaintiff”) subsequently filed a complaint for wrongful death.[ix] “Defendants and the A-1 defendants filed motions for summary judgment asserting N.J.S.A. 39:6(a)-4.5(a) barred plaintiff’s claim.”[x] The lower court granted summary judgment as to the A-1 defendants, but denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment.[xi] Notably, the lower court concluded decedent was not physically “operating” his vehicle at the time of the second accident for the purposes of N.J.S.A 39:6A-4.5(a).[xii]
N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) provides that:
“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…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.”[xiii]
On appeal, defendants argued that: (1) “N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) should apply where decedent’s uninsured vehicle is involved in a double impact motor vehicle accident”[xiv] and (2) the lower court’s decision is “inconsistent with the public policy reasons behind N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a).”[xv] Defendants specifically pointed to Perrelli . Pastorelle to argue that N.J.S.A 39:6A-4.5(a) “has been applied to the owner of an uninsured vehicle, even when the owner was injured while a passenger in the vehicle.”[xvi]
The appellate court concluded the language in the statute is clear and unambiguous.[xvii] The appellate court explained “the objective of all statutory interpretation is to discern and effectuate the intent of the Legislature,”[xviii] and “the best indicator of that intent is the statutory language[,]” which should be given its “ordinary meaning and significance.”[xix] “If the language is clear, our job is complete.”[xx] Given decedent’s vehicle was inoperable prior to the second accident, considerable time had passed between the two accidents, and decedent had entered his car solely to retrieve his own cell phone and not for any other purpose, the appellate court found the trial court correctly denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment.[xxi] Even if the appellate court “were to consider a broader reading of the ‘while operating’ language under N.J.S.A 39:6A-4.5(a),” the court still found there was “simply no evidence in the record decedent was operating or had any intent to operate the disabled vehicle” at the time of the second accident.[xxii]
The appellate court also distinguished the facts of this case from Perrelli. In Perrelli, the plaintiff had been “driving her uninsured vehicle with a friend as a passenger” and, “after stopping at a rest area, the plaintiff’s friend took over driving, while the plaintiff became the passenger.”[xxiii] The issue before the Court in Perrelli was “whether the phrase ‘while operating’ in N.J.S.A 39:6A-4.5(a) required the plaintiff herself to have been actually operating the uninsured vehicle at the time of the accident.”[xxiv] The Court found, “[g]iven the purpose of N.J.S.A 39:6A-4.5(a), there can be no doubt that the Legislature wanted to assure that all automobiles were covered by compulsory insurance by precluding those who do not have the required coverage from recovering from others merely by having someone else drive their car.”[xxv] However, the appellate court concluded the holding in Perrelli does not apply to the facts of this case given when decedent was killed in the second accident, he nor anyone else was “operating an uninsured vehicle.”[xxvi] In fact, it is undisputed decedent’s vehicle was inoperable at the time of the second accident and there is no evidence nor indication deponent had an intent to operate the vehicle at the time.[xxvii]
Under N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a), retrieval of a cell phone from an inoperable vehicle involved in an accident does not count as “operating” the vehicle. The appellate court left open the door for more challenges to limit N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a)’s application in situations “where an individual was injured unrelated to his or someone else’s operation of the uninsured vehicle.”[xxviii] However, the appellate court also made clear that the holding in Perrelli still stands and “preclusion of recovery contained in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) applies to the owner of an uninsured vehicle whether injured as a driver or passenger.”[xxix]
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[i] Aronberg v. Tolbert, 207 N.J. 587, 598, 25 A.3d 1121 (2011).
[ii] Memudu v. Gonzalez, No. A-0110-22, 2023 WL 2229487, at *1 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Feb. 27, 2023).
[xii] Id. at 3.
[xiv] Id. at 2
[xvi] Perrelli v. Pastorelle, 206 N.J. 193, 208, 20 A.3d 354 (2011).
[xvii] Memudu, supra, at 4.
[xviii] Murray v. Plainfield Rescue Squad, 210 N.J. 581, 592, 46 A.3d 1262 (2012).
[xix] DiProspero v. Penn, 183 N.J. 477, 492, 874 A.2d 1039 (2005).
[xx] Memudu, supra, at 3.
[xxi] Id. at 4.
[xxiii] Perrelli, supra, at 195-96.
[xxiv] Id. at 197.
[xxv] Id. at 203.
[xxvi] Memudu, supra, at 4.