Ledrich v. Kier, A-2722-21

CourtNew Jersey Superior Court – Appellate Division
Writing for the CourtPER CURIAM
PartiesFREDRICK LEDRICH,[1] individually and as administrator ad prosequendum of the Estate of SHIRLEY LEDRICH, deceased, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. LILLIAN L. KIER, CHRISTOPHER D. QUINN, and WOODBURY NISSAN, INC., Defendants, and PLYMOUTH ROCK ASSURANCE, UNDERWRITTEN BY PALISADES SAFETY AND INSURANCE ASSOCIATION, Defendant-Respondent, and CITIZENS UNITED RECIPROCAL EXCHANGE, d/b/a CURE AUTO INSURANCE, Defendant-Appellant, and PALISADES SAFETY AND INSURANCE ASSOCIATION, i/p/a PLYMOUTH ROCK ASSURANCE, Defendant/Third-Party Plaintiff, v. COOPER HOSPITAL MEDICAL CENTER, Third-Party Defendant.
Docket NumberA-2722-21
Decision Date21 November 2022

FREDRICK LEDRICH,[1] individually and as administrator ad prosequendum of the Estate of SHIRLEY LEDRICH, deceased, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.

LILLIAN L. KIER, CHRISTOPHER D. QUINN, and WOODBURY NISSAN, INC., Defendants,

and PLYMOUTH ROCK ASSURANCE, UNDERWRITTEN BY PALISADES SAFETY AND INSURANCE ASSOCIATION, Defendant-Respondent, and CITIZENS UNITED RECIPROCAL EXCHANGE, d/b/a CURE AUTO INSURANCE, Defendant-Appellant, and PALISADES SAFETY AND INSURANCE ASSOCIATION, i/p/a PLYMOUTH ROCK ASSURANCE, Defendant/Third-Party Plaintiff,
v.

COOPER HOSPITAL MEDICAL CENTER, Third-Party Defendant.

No. A-2722-21

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

November 21, 2022


This opinion shall not "constitute precedent or be binding upon any court." Although it is posted on the internet, this opinion is binding only on the parties in the case and its use in other cases is limited. R. 1:36-3.

Argued October 26, 2022

On appeal from an interlocutory order of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Gloucester County, Docket No. L-0155-21.

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Robert J. Cahall argued the cause for appellant (McCormick &Priore, PC, attorneys; Robert J. Cahall, of counsel and on the briefs).

Scott C. McKinley argued the cause for respondent Fredrick Ledrich, individually and as administrator ad prosequendum of the Estate of Shirley Ledrich (Brown, Novick &McKinley, attorneys; Milton Wayne Brown, of counsel; Scott C. McKinley, on the brief).

Miriam R. Rubin argued the cause for respondent Plymouth Rock Assurance, underwritten by Palisades Safety and Insurance Association.

Before Judges Accurso, Vernoia, and Firko.

PER CURIAM

By way of leave to appeal granted in this personal injury protection (PIP) coverage dispute, defendant Citizens United Reciprocal Exchange (CURE) seeks reversal of the February 8, 2022 Law Division orders granting defendant Plymouth Rock Assurance's (Plymouth Rock) motion for summary judgment, denying CURE's cross-motion for summary judgment, and the April 1, 2022 order denying CURE's motion for reconsideration. On appeal, CURE reprises its argument that the decedent, Shirley Ledrich, was a nonresident relative of her late brother Frederick's[2] household, as defined in his CURE automobile

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insurance policy, and therefore, CURE should not be required to pay PIP benefits on behalf of Shirley. We reject CURE's argument and affirm.

I.

We summarize the relevant facts from the record before the motion judge in a light most favorable to CURE. Elazar v. Macrietta Cleaners, Inc., 230 N.J. 123, 135 (2017). On May 21, 2020, Shirley sustained catastrophic injuries while riding as the front-seat passenger in a vehicle owned and operated by her friend, defendant Lillian L. Kier. Defendant Christopher D. Quinn was driving a demonstrator automobile owned by defendant Woodbury Nissan, Inc., at the time of the accident. Shirley underwent extensive medical treatment for severe spinal and head injuries at defendant Cooper Hospital University Medical Center before her death and was on life support. She died eight days after the accident following hospice care. At his deposition, Frederick testified that Shirley's hospital bills were approximately $800,000.

The motion record reveals Shirley resided in Mantua prior to her demise in an apartment located over the garage on property owned by Frederick. He testified Shirley lived with him for forty years prior to the accident. At his deposition, Frederick testified Shirley had a sixth or seventh grade education, was illiterate, and could not manage money or use the internet. Frederick lived

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in the house situated on the Mantua property approximately twenty feet away from the garage apartment he built for Shirley somewhere around 1975. Shirley used Frederick's street address and shared the same driveway to access her garage apartment. According to Frederick, Shirley was incapable of living alone without the assistance of family members.

Frederick testified Shirley did not pay him rent. All of her utilities- electric, gas, water, and sewer-were connected to Frederick's house, and he paid all the bills. Frederick installed a telephone in Shirley's apartment and paid for the service. He provided most of the furnishings. Frederick used the garage below Shirley's apartment. He paid for homeowner's insurance for the entire property-including Shirley's apartment-and all maintenance expenses.

Frederick shopped for food and necessities for Shirley and managed her finances. He made doctor appointments for her and "took care of" her medical bills. Shirley could not write a check and was unable to use a credit card. Frederick testified that Shirley had access to his house, assisted with cleaning the house prior to his wife's death, and did yardwork. There was only one mailbox on the property. Frederick and Shirley interacted on a daily basis, had coffee, and sometimes ate meals together. He considered himself to be her guardian and caretaker even though no formal documents were ever prepared.

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A. The CURE Policy

Frederick sought PIP coverage for the extensive hospital, hospice, and funeral expenses incurred for Shirley under his CURE policy as a resident relative. Pursuant to an endorsement contained in the CURE policy for PIP benefits, medical expenses, income continuation benefits, essential services, death benefits, and funeral services were payable to "'named insureds' [and their] 'family members' who sustain[] 'bodily injury' while 'occupying' or using an 'auto.'" The CURE declaration page did not list Shirley as a named insured. Shirley was deemed disabled and collected Social Security disability benefits the entire time she lived in the apartment. She was incapable of driving a vehicle.

The CURE policy does not define "family member" in the PIP endorsement section of the policy. However, "family member" is defined in the definition section of the policy as "a person related to you by blood, marriage or adoption who is a resident of your household." In an amendment to the CURE policy, the term "civil union" is added.

B. The Plymouth Rock Policy

At the time of the accident, Lillian was the named insured on a standard personal automobile policy issued to her by Plymouth Rock. Her policy

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contained an endorsement providing PIP benefits to "eligible insured person[s]," defined in the policy as "[a]ny other person who sustains bodily injury while, with the permission of the named insured, occupying, using, entering into or alighting from your covered auto." The PIP endorsement had a clause excluding from coverage "any 'insured' [o]ther than the 'named insured' or any 'family member' if that 'insured' is entitled to New Jersey [PIP] coverage as a named insured or family member under the terms of another policy." Shirley was not related to Lillian and did not reside with her.

Plymouth Rock denied PIP coverage under its exclusion clause based on its assessment that Shirley was a "named insured or relative resident under an active policy through . . . CURE." Four months later, CURE denied PIP coverage based on its finding that Shirley "was not a resident relative" of its insured-Frederick.

On March 1, 2021, Frederick filed an amended complaint[3] against Plymouth Rock and CURE seeking a declaration that PIP benefits were wrongfully denied to Shirley and her estate. Frederick averred Shirley and her estate were entitled to PIP benefits under Lillian's policy as a permissive

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occupant of her vehicle. In the alternative, Frederick pled CURE should provide PIP benefits because Shirley was a household member insured under his automobile policy.[4]

The motion judge granted Plymouth Rock's motion for summary judgment and denied CURE's cross-motion for summary judgment. In a letter opinion, the judge found Shirley was a "household" member under Frederick's CURE policy, and that CURE was "responsible to pay out PIP benefits due to the catastrophic injuries sustained by Shirley" in the subject accident. Based on the facts largely provided by Frederick during discovery, the judge concluded Shirley met the definition of "household member" under Mazzilli v. Accident &Casualty Insurance Company, 35 N.J. 1 (1961), because she was, "by living in the apartment above Fred[e]rick's home, . . . analogous with the wife living in a bungalow on her husband's property."

The judge also highlighted Shirley and Frederick's "living situation establish[es] that there was a familial relationship between the two, that they did enjoy significant prerogatives of family life and had some degree of joint domesticity." See Fireman's Fund of N.J. v. Caldwell, 270 N.J.Super. 157, 167 (Law Div. 1993).

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In his decision, the judge pointed to the undisputed facts that Frederick "controlled Shirley's finances because she was unable to do so on her own;" Shirley was "an integral part" of his daily life; she had access to his entire property; they ate meals together at his home; and Shirley did not pay for rent or utilities. A memorializing order was entered. The judge later denied CURE's motion for reconsideration.

On appeal, CURE contends the judge erred in granting Plymouth Rock's motion for summary judgment and denying its cross-motion for summary judgment because: (1) the unrefuted summary judgment record evidence confirmed Shirley lived separately from Frederick; and (2) the expectations of the contracting parties, not strangers to the contract such as Plymouth Rock, inform the determination of coverage.

II.

We review a summary judgment motion ruling de novo, applying the same standard governing the trial court. Conley v. Guerrero, 228 N.J. 339, 346 (2017) (citing Templo Fuente De Vida Corp. v. Nat'l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, 224 N.J. 189, 199 (2016)). Summary judgment is appropriate if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there...

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