Defendant Masoras Avos, Inc. (“Masoras”), operated a religious school in Lakewood, New Jersey.  Drive New Jersey Ins. Co. v. Gisis, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2011).  Defendant Gennadiy Gisis (“Gisis”) was employed by Masoras as a school bus driver.  On November 14, 2007, Gisis was driving a Masoras school bus when it collided with a vehicle owned by Luzde Mendoza (“Mendoza”).  In the accident, Armando Rodriguez (“Rodriguez”) and Aracely Sambrano (“Sambrano”), who were on the bus, sustained injuries.  The bus was insured under a policy issued by defendant Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company (“Philadelphia Indemnity”).  The policy provided medical expense benefits to bus passengers.  Mendoza’s vehicle was insured by a policy issued by plaintiff Driver New Jersey Insurance Company (“Drive New Jersey”), which provided personal injury protection (“PIP”) benefits. 

Drive New Jersey paid nearly $53,000 in medical expenses incurred by Rodriguez and Sambrano as a result of their injuries from the accident.  Drive New Jersey then filed suit against Philadelphia Indemnity, Gisis, and Masoras for reimbursement of the PIP benefits it paid as a result of Gisis’s allegedly negligent operation of the bus.  Drive New Jersey filed a motion to compel arbitration, and defendants filed a cross-motion for summary judgment.  The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants, holding that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-9.1 barred Drive New Jersey from seeking reimbursement for its PIP payments from the defendants.  The Appellate Division reversed.

N.J.S.A. 39:6A-9.1 provides in pertinent part that an “insurer, health maintenance organization or governmental agency that pays “benefits pursuant to subsection a., b. or d. of [N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.3], personal injury protection benefits in accordance with [N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4 or 39:6A-10], medical expense benefits pursuant to [N.J.S.A. 39:6A-3.1] or benefits pursuant to [N.J.S.A. 39:6A-3.3], as a result of an accident occurring within this State, shall, within two years of the filing of the claim, have the right to recover the amount of payments from any tortfeasor who was not, at the time of the accident, required to maintain personal injury protection or medical expense benefits coverage, other than for pedestrians, under the laws of this State, including personal injury protection coverage required to be provided in accordance with [N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.4], or although required did not maintain personal injury protection or medical expense benefits coverage at the time of the accident.”

Drive New Jersey argued that it had a statutory right to seek recovery of the PIP benefits it paid because Masoras was not required to have PIP or medical expense benefits coverage for its bus.  Philadelphia Indemnity countered that argument by asserting that the statute should be interpreted to bar the claim because, even though it did not have to, Masoras had medical expense benefits coverage.  It also argued that allowing Drive New Jersey to seek reimbursement was contrary to the purpose of the statute.

The Appellate Division first reviewed well-established principles concerning statutory interpretation, including that the best indicator of legislative intent is the actual language used in the statute.  The Appellate Division explained that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-9.1 was clear on its face and that it permitted an insurer that paid PIP benefits to recover from any tortfeasor that was not required to maintain coverage.  The court then pointed out that alleged tortfeasors Masoras and Gisis were not required to maintain PIP or medical expense benefits coverage; therefore, the court declared that “according to the plain language of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-9.1, Drive New Jersey has a right to seek recovery of its PIP payments from defendants.”

The Appellate Division proceeded to distinguish caselaw that the trial court had relied upon in granting summary judgment to the defendants, and it rejected their argument that the purpose of the statute was to prevent one PIP carrier from seeking reimbursement from another PIP carrier so that the costs of auto insurance would be lessened.  The court was unmoved by that argument, noting that it was “compelled to apply the statute as written.”  Because the “statute plainly authorizes Drive New Jersey to seek reimbursement of its PIP payments from defendants[,]” the Appellate Division reversed and remanded for further proceedings.