In an unpublished decision, New Jersey’s Appellate Division recently affirmed a trial court’s decision in the matter of Hurtado v. Wilkins, 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1017 (App. Div. of N.J., Decided May 3, 2019), granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s motor vehicle plaintiff’s negligence claim on the grounds that the plaintiff failed to maintain medical expense benefits coverage, as required by N.J.S.A.§ 39:6A-4.5(a).N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) provides that any person who is injured in an automobile accident while operating a vehicle cannot recover damages as a result of the accident if that person does not have medical expense benefits coverage at the time of the accident. In this instance, the plaintiff’s motor vehicle insurance had been voided by a declaratory judgment action, which had proceeded to default judgment against him.
In Hurtado, the plaintiff alleged that he was injured from a June 9, 2015 motor vehicle accident while he was operating a 2005 Kia. He had purchased the Kia in 2013, when he was unmarried, but made all remaining payments on it and gifted it to a co-worker between the end of 2013 and May of 2014. He then married that co-worker in October of 2014.
In discovery, the plaintiff’s wife suggested that he had asked her to insure the vehicle because it was too expensive for him. He contended that he gifted her the Kia because her vehicle, a 1994 Lexus, was not working well. Nevertheless, plaintiff’s wife insured the Kia and Lexus under her name with Progressive, and subsequently added a 2008 Toyota Scion to the policy prior to the accident. The Scion was purchased with the plaintiff’s adult daughter.
In July of 2014, the plaintiff’s wife switched all three vehicles’ insurance to New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Co., representing that she was the sole owner and driver of the vehicles, and that there were no other drivers in her household. The Scion, meanwhile, was principally garaged with Plaintiff’s daughter. Based on these representations, NJM afforded a “one-driver household” discount. Four months later, plaintiff and his wife were married. He went back and forth for the remainder of 2014 between her home and his friend’s home, and was living at a friend’s house when the 2015 accident occurred.
The trial court determined, on a motion for summary judgment, that the plaintiff was married to his wife and a member of her household. As such, he was not an innocent permissive user, but rather was required to obtain his own automobile insurance.
The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court, noting that there was no dispute that the vehicle at issue was uninsured within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a), even if the coverage was voided subsequently by court order entering default judgment. Thus, the court’s sole question on appeal was whether Hurtado was required to maintain medical expense benefits coverage at the time of the accident, and failed to do so.
The owner of a vehicle principally garaged in New Jersey is required to maintain various insurance coverages, including medical expense benefits coverage N.J.S.A. 39:6A-3. Permissive users of those vehicles are not required to procure their own coverage. White v. Schley, 333 N.J. Super. 581, 82-83 (Law Div. 2000). The question before the court, then, was whether the plaintiff was a permissive user or not at the time of the accident.
First, the court considered whether he was an “owner” of the vehicle for purposes of coverage. The “true owner” of the vehicle may be one other than the person who has formal legal title to it. Am. Hardware Mut. Ins. Co. v. Muller, 98 N.J. Super. 119, 129 (Ch. Div. 1967). In determining the true owner, the Appellate Division relied on its 2005 decision in Dziuba v. Fletcher, 382 N.J, Super, 73, 78 (App. Div. 2005) which addressed the ownership of shared vehicles. Husbands and wives often jointly own cars, and the husband in Dziuba was the “beneficial owner” of an uninsured car, even if it was registered to his wife. Therefore, in Dziuba – as in Hurtado – the court ruled that the husband was required to obtain medical expense benefit coverage. While not precedential, the Hurtado matter is a persuasive restatement and explanation of the principles first set forth in Dziuba as to when a person is culpably uninsured.
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