- Motor liability
Partner - London. United Kingdom
Over time, New Jersey’s No Fault Act has evolved to incorporate additional restrictions on an injured party’s right to sue for injuries resulting from an auto accident. These restrictions, viewed as a trade-off for the Act’s promise of prompt payment of medical expenses regardless of fault, serve to impose the “draconian consequence” of completely foreclosing a prospective plaintiff’s cause of action should they run awry of requirements of the Act. One such restriction, set forth in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b), prohibits those driving drunk at the time of an accident from later seeking damages resulting from that accident. But despite having been incorporated into the Act over 25 years ago, the Appellate Division has only now answered one critical question regarding the application of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b): is formal conviction of a DWI required to bar a Plaintiff’s claim?
History of the New Jersey No Fault Act
In 1972, the New Jersey Legislature enacted the New Jersey Automobile Reparation Reform Act, also known as the New Jersey No Fault Act, with the stated objectives of making insurance readily available for car owners, ensuring that benefits are promptly available to those injured in auto accidents, reducing costs of insurance, and streamlining judicial procedures concerning third-party claims. Gambino v. Royal Globe Ins. Companies, 86 N.J. 100, 106 (1981) (citing Automobile Insurance Study Commission, Reparation Reform for New Jersey Motorists at 7 (December 1971)). The Act requires owners of motor vehicles in New Jersey to “maintain minimum amounts of standard, basic, or special liability insurance coverage for bodily injury, death, and property damage caused by their vehicles.” Caviglia v. Royal Tours of Am., 178 N.J. 460, 466 (2004) (citing N.J.S.A. 39:6B–1).
The No Fault Act further contains restrictions on the right of an individual to sue following a motor vehicle accident. For example, the Act originally prohibited lawsuits unless an injured party was able to prove injury “that resulted in medical expenses in excess of a $200 threshold.” Oswin v. Shaw, 129 N.J. 290, 296 (1992) (citing L.1972, c. 70, § 8). As the Act ensured payment of medical expenses regardless of fault, these restrictions were viewed as a justified “trade-off.” Roig v. Kelsey, 135 N.J. 500, 503-04 (2004).
In 1997 the “Legislature comprehensively amended N.J.S.A. 39:6A–4.5” to include additional restrictions, including barring “persons who drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs” from suing for personal injuries arising from a car accident. Caviglia, 178 N.J. at 470. Subsection b reads as follows:
Any person who is convicted of, or pleads guilty to, operating a motor vehicle in violation of R.S.39:4-50, section 2 of P.L.1981, c. 512 (C.39:4-50.4a), or a similar statute from any other jurisdiction, in connection with an accident, shall have no cause of action for recovery of economic or noneconomic loss sustained as a result of the accident.
One stated public policy rationale for this amendment is to deter drunk driving. Caviglia, 178 N.J. at 474.
The Case of George Castano
At 1:15 a.m. on November 20, 2019, Plaintiff George Castano was driving his motorcycle down Tonnelle Avenue in Jersey City, New Jersey. Castano v. Augustine, 2023 WL 2358451, at *1 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Mar. 6, 2023). The Plaintiff had been consuming beer and liquor at numerous bars “since approximately 2:00 p.m. the day before.” Id. Defendant Wendell Augustine was exiting a convenience store parking lot and turning onto Tonnelle Avenue. Id. While in the process of making the turn, Augustine’s vehicle crossed into Castano’s lane. The Plaintiff struck the rear of the Defendant’s truck and crashed into a nearby lane divider.
At deposition Plaintiff Castano not only admitted to speeding, he also testified at various times that he was “drunk.” He set out in detail what he drank at three different bars the day before and up to 20 minutes prior to the accident occurring. Id. Two EMT’s that came to the scene of the accident independently recalled that Plaintiff admitted to speeding and drinking. Id. While police did investigate the accident scene, Plaintiff was not cited with any offenses.
Plaintiff was subsequently taken to a hospital for treatment and had his blood drawn. The defendants’ expert later opined that Plaintiff Castano’s BAC would have been between .159 and .162 at the time of the accident based, in part, on the alcohol level in Plaintiff’s blood. Id. Based on these facts, the Defendants moved for summary judgment.
The Defendants argued that the record established that Plaintiff Castano was drunk at the time of the accident and that he was therefore barred from pursuing a negligence claim for damages pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b). Castano, 2023 WL 2358451 at *2. Defendants further argued that “New Jersey’s strong policy in favor of deterring drunk driving meant the statute should apply, even though plaintiff was neither convicted of, nor pled guilty to, DWI.” Id. The Plaintiff opposed the motion arguing that there was a dispute of fact as to Plaintiff’s alleged intoxication, and that Plaintiff had never pled guilty to or been convicted of a DWI meaning that subsection b did not apply. Id.
The trial court denied the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment under a strict construction of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) and further agreed that there was a “serious” dispute of material fact as to Plaintiff’s intoxication at the time of the accident. Id. Defendants’ subsequent motion for reconsideration was denied and an appeal followed.
Judge Carmen Messano delivered the opinion of the Appellate Division. Citing long-established tenets of statutory interpretation, Judge Messano found the language of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) to be “plain and unambiguous.” Id. at *3. The Appellate Division found that the “Legislature chose to limit such a draconian consequence only to those prospective litigants who actually had been convicted of DWI.” Id (emphasis added). In rendering the decision, the Appellate Division acknowledged “New Jersey’s strong policy against drunk driving,” but added that the “policy was neither the only, nor, in fact, was it the announced, goal of the no fault legislation in which it was included.” Id. (quoting Woodworth v. Joyce, 373 N.J. Super. 114, 122 (App. Div. 2004). The opinion adds that to rule otherwise would ignore the “bedrock assumption” that the Legislature does not use “unnecessary or meaningless language.” Id. at *4. The Appellate Division further acknowledged the dispute of fact as to the Plaintiff’s alleged intoxication when affirming the trial court’s decision. Id.
Following the Appellate Division’s decision in Castano, it appears clear that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) will not serve to bar a plaintiff’s claims absent a formal DWI conviction. While the Law Division judge in Castano opined that “public policy” should have resulted in summary judgment being granted in favor of the defendants (absent necessary strict construction of the law), as the Appellate Division observed, “[b]y denying a cause of action to only those who have been adjudicated guilty of DWI beyond a reasonable doubt, the Legislature avoided the need for courts to resolve disputed facts.” Id. at *5.