Deemer or No Deemer – That is the Question

Failure to Follow New Jersey No-Fault Law Deprives Plaintiff of Coverage

When a person is injured in an auto accident they will do almost anything to get indemnity, especially when the person causing the injury was uninsured. In Denise V. Thomas v. Maria Bobadilla And Allstate Insurance Company, Docket No. A-1834-15T4, Superior Court Of New Jersey Appellate Division (August 9, 2017) an injured person who only maintained material damage coverage on her Florida registered and Florida insured automobile sought uninsured motorist coverage because it was required by New Jersey state law.

FACTS

Denise V. Thomas claimed she was injured in an accident as a result of defendant Maria Bobadilla’s negligence. Thomas was insured by defendant All-State Insurance Company (All-State), through a policy she purchased in Florida. The trial court denied All-State’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss Thomas’ claim because it determined that All-State was obligated to provide her with uninsured motorist benefits under the Deemer Statute, N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.4, as Bobadilla was covered by a basic insurance policy without bodily insurance protection.

In December 2011, Thomas separated from her husband and left Florida to relocate to New Jersey, where she has since remained. Seven months later, on July 7, 2012, Thomas was driving her automobile in New Jersey when she was involved in an auto accident with Bobadilla. Although her automobile had been with her since her arrival to our state, at the time of the accident it was still registered in Florida under her name and insured by All-State under a Florida policy in which she declined uninsured motorist coverage. At the time of the accident, Bobadilla had a basic insurance policy without bodily insurance coverage.

All-State moved for summary judgment contending that since Bobadilla, the tortfeasor, was insured without bodily injury coverage, Thomas could not seek recovery for bodily injury through her Florida All-State policy that did not have uninsured or underinsured protection. All-State argued the Deemer Statute did not afford uninsured or underinsured coverage to Thomas’ out-of-state All-State policy because her automobile was principally garaged in New Jersey for seven months prior to the accident and she should have obtained coverage under a New Jersey automobile insurance policy.

The trial court denied the motion. The court found that when the accident occurred Thomas was not a New Jersey resident and did not have to acquire New Jersey insurance coverage. The court reasoned “while there may be indicators that Thomas did in fact relocate back to New Jersey, seven months is not a sufficient amount of time to declare her an official New Jersey resident at the time of the accident.” Further, the court determined that Bobadilla was an uninsured motorist under the Deemer Statute. Thus, the court reasoned that the Deemer Statute converted Thomas’ Florida All-State policy to a New Jersey policy.

The court entered a consent judgement in favor of Thomas against All-State in the amount of $15,000, with All-State reserving the right to appeal the court’s denial of its summary judgment motion.

DISCUSSION

All-State reiterates its argument that Thomas is not entitled to seek recovery for bodily injury because Bobadilla’s insurance coverage did not have bodily injury coverage and the Florida All-State policy that covered Thomas’ automobile did not provide uninsured or underinsured benefits. All-State contends that the Deemer Statute does not apply to afford Thomas the lawsuit limitation option to seek recovery for bodily injury because as a New Jersey resident with an automobile principally garaged in New Jersey, she should have had a New Jersey policy.

The Deemer Statute requires an out-of-state insurer authorized to transact business in New Jersey to include standard personal injury protection (PIP) coverage pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4 “for any New Jersey resident who is not required to maintain [PIP] coverage pursuant to [N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4 or N.J.S.A. 39:6A-3.1] and who is not otherwise eligible for such benefits, whenever the automobile . . . insured under the policy is used or operated in this State.” N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.4 (emphasis added). The question in this case is whether the Deemer Statute is inapplicable because Thomas was required to maintain PIP coverage pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.

Every owner of an automobile registered or principally garaged in New Jersey is required to maintain minimum amounts of standard, basic, or special liability insurance coverage for bodily injury, death, and property damage caused by their automobiles. In addition, every insurance policy must provide a package of PIP benefits. A person who fails to maintain such 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.” N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a).

The term “principally garaged” as used in N.J.S.A. 39:6B-1 is not defined in the statute and, thus, must be given its generally accepted meaning. In New Jersey the term “principally garaged” means “the physical location where an automobile is primarily or chiefly kept or where it is kept most of the time.”

Thomas was living in New Jersey and driving her Florida registered and insured automobile in New Jersey for seven consecutive months prior to the accident. Therefore, the appellate court concluded that the trial court was wrong when it decided that Thomas did not have a sufficient time to register and insure her automobile in New Jersey. Thomas’ failure to insure her automobile under a New Jersey policy precludes her from seeking recovery for her bodily injury under New Jersey statutes.

Lastly, Thomas’ contention that not applying the Deemer Statute violates her constitutional equal protection rights is without sufficient legal basis to merit discussion in this opinion.

ZALMA OPINION

It is amazing to me that this suit survived the trial court and needed appellate help. The plaintiff failed to comply with the state law and then tried to get the benefits of the law with which she refused to comply. The trial court felt sorry for her but should have, as did the appellate court, slap her claim down.

ZALMA-INS-CONSULT © 2017 – Barry Zalma

This article and all of the blog posts on this site digests and summarize cases published by courts of the various states and the United States.  The court decisions have been modified from the actual language of the court decisions, were condensed for ease of reading, and convey the opinions of the author regarding each case.

Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant and expert witness specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He also serves as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance related disputes. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 49 years in the insurance business. Mr. Zalma is the first recipient of theLEGEND-TROPHY-2 first annual Claims Magazine/ACE Legend Award.

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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