New Jersey’s Survivors Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-3, allows an appointed representative to file any cause of action that the decedent could have brought if he or she had not died. Such an action belongs to the estate and any recovery is for the benefit of the estate. The Wrongful Death Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1 to -6, provides a decedent’s heirs with a cause of action to recover pecuniary damages for their direct losses as a result of the decedent’s death if caused by the tortious conduct of another person. However, the Act further provides that heirs can recover only if the decedent would have been “entitled … to maintain an action for damages resulting from the injury” had “death not ensued.” A provision of New Jersey’s automobile insurance law, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a), provides that any individual who fails to have statutorily required no-fault insurance “shall have no cause of action for recovery of economic or noneconomic loss sustained as a result of the accident while operating an uninsured automobile.”
The intersection of these statutes was considered by the Supreme Court in Aronberg v. Tolbert, ___ N.J. ___ (2011). Specifically, the Court had to decide whether the decedent’s failure to maintain no-fault insurance barred his mother’s wrongful death claims against the defendants whose negligence allegedly caused his death in an automobile accident. The Court, relying primarily upon the plain statutory language of the Wrongful Death Act and N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a), held that because the decedent was an uninsured driver and therefore “could not have maintained a cause of action had he lived due to the statutory bar in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a), his heirs cannot recover under the Wrongful Death Act.”
The decedent was driving southbound on the New Jersey Turnpike in his Volkswagen Jetta when a tractor trailer struck the rear of his vehicle, killing him. At the time of the accident, the decedent did not have automobile insurance, as only three weeks earlier Allstate New Jersey Insurance Company cancelled the policy issued to him because he failed to keep his premiums current. The decedent’s mother filed suit against the driver of the tractor trailer and his employer, asserting survivorship and wrongful death claims.
The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that both the survivorship and wrongful death claims were barred because the decedent was driving an uninsured vehicle. The trial court agreed that the survivorship claim had to be dismissed because the decedent would have been barred by N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) from pursuing a personal injury action had he survived. However, the trial court ruled that the wrongful death claim could proceed because it belonged to the decedent’s beneficiaries, and the court did not believe that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) was intended to punish the heirs of a deceased individual. The Appellate Division affirmed but the Supreme Court reversed.
The Court began its analysis by noting that because the facts were undisputed, the question it had to consider was purely one of statutory interpretation. After recounting the well-established principles that guided how it interprets statutes, the Court proceeded to review the plain language of both N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) and the Wrongful Death Act. As to N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a), the Court stressed that “[o]n its face, the statute deprives an uninsured motorist of the right to sue for any loss caused by another, regardless of fault.” The Court further explained that “[t]he statute’s self-evidence purpose is not to immunize a negligent driver from a civil action, but to give the maximum incentive to all motorists to comply with the State’s compulsory no-fault insurance laws.” Turning to the Wrongful Death Act, the Court pointed out that in order for heirs to proceed with such a claim, the decedent must have been entitled to maintain an action for damages had he or she not died.
The Court concluded that “[a]pplying the language of the statute to the facts here, we have [decedent’s] death caused by the alleged wrongful acts of defendants. However, ‘if death had not ensued’ – that is, had [decedent] lived – he would not have been entitled ‘to maintain an action for damages resulting from the injury,’ N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1, because, as an uninsured motorist, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) would have barred his cause of action. A plain-language reading of the Wrongful Death Act indicates that the heir’s cause of action is therefore likewise barred.” Although the Court could have ended its opinion at that point, it nonetheless went on to consider various cases and points raised by the Appellate Division’s majority opinion, as the majority had taken the position that the Legislature would not have wanted to bar the mother’s wrongful death action under these circumstances and that doing so would lead to an absurd result.
Thus, the Court proceeded to review the caselaw discussed by the Appellate Division majority, as well as the State’s automobile insurance statutory scheme. The Court also analyzed the Survivor’s Act and pointed out that its language was quite similar to that of the Wrongful Death Act and that allowing a wrongful death action to proceed while a survival action could not would be an anomalous result. After completing its review, the Court declared that there was nothing in the legislative history or policy objectives of the Wrongful Death Act and N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) that “suggests an outcome different from the one compelled by the unambiguous language of the statutes themselves.”
In conclusion, the Court reasoned that “N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) places a strong incentive on motorists to purchase automobile insurance not only to protect themselves, but their family members as well. Perhaps the desire to protect a loved one is at least as great as the impulse to protect oneself. The plain language of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a), as applied to the Wrongful Death Act, furthers the Legislature’s purpose of coercing compliance with our automobile insurance laws. The Legislature has determined that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a)’s lawsuit bar applies to the decedent’s next of kin in wrongful death action. We cannot ignore the relevant statutory language to reach a more sympathetic result for plaintiff.”