Lindstrom by Lindstrom v. Hanover Ins. Co. on Behalf of New Jersey Auto. Full Ins. Underwriting Ass'n

Decision Date19 December 1994
Parties, 63 USLW 2407, 41 A.L.R.5th 837 Kurt LINDSTROM, by his Guardian ad Litem, George K. LINDSTROM, and George K. Lindstrom, Individually, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. The HANOVER INSURANCE COMPANY on Behalf of the NEW JERSEY AUTOMOBILE FULL INSURANCE UNDERWRITING ASSOCIATION, Defendant-Respondent.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Patricia D. Connelly, Oakhurst, for appellant (Shebell & Schibell, attorneys; Peter Shebell, Jr., of counsel).

Mark S. Hochman, Wall, for respondent (Gertler & Hanna, attorneys).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by

CLIFFORD, J.

Plaintiff Kurt Lindstrom sustained grave injuries resulting from a gunshot wound inflicted in a drive-by shooting. He seeks recovery of personal-injury-protection (PIP) benefits under his father's automobile insurance policy, issued by defendant. The trial court concluded that the nexus between the injury and the automobile was not substantial enough to bring the loss within PIP coverage, and therefore it entered summary judgment in favor of the defendant-insurer. The Appellate Division affirmed, 269 N.J.Super. 339, 635 A.2d 559 (1993). We granted certification, 136 N.J. 31, 641 A.2d 1041 (1994), and now reverse.

I

The facts are undisputed. Plaintiff Kurt Lindstrom was a student at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. He was attending an outdoor party at the University on April 15, 1989, when an occupant of a passing car fired a shot into the crowd. The bullet struck Kurt behind his right ear and pierced his spinal column, rendering him a quadriplegic. The authorities apprehended and successfully prosecuted the assailant.

As a member of his father's household in Eatontown, Kurt was covered by the automobile insurance policy issued by defendant, Hanover Insurance Company, to the father, plaintiff George K. Lindstrom. (Inasmuch as his son is totally disabled, George sues as Kurt's guardian ad litem as well as in his individual capacity. Because the interests of father and son are identical, we refer hereafter to "plaintiff" in the singular.)

At the time of the occurrence the statute that defines eligibility for PIP benefits mandated

the payment of benefits without regard to negligence, liability or fault of any kind, to the named insured and members of his family residing in his household who sustained bodily injury as a result of an accident * * * as a pedestrian, caused by an automobile or by an object propelled by or from an automobile.

[L.1988, c. 119, § 3 (codified at N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4).]

Plaintiff demanded payment under the policy for Kurt's medical expenses and "essential services." When defendant refused payment, plaintiff instituted this suit to obtain PIP benefits.

On the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment the trial court ruled that some connection must exist between the insured and "the manner by which the injury[-]producing event occurs." Because it found no "operative automobile[-]like activity to justify application of the coverage," the court entered summary judgment for defendant.

Plaintiff appealed. In determining whether Kurt's injuries were within the contemplation of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4 ("section four"), the Appellate Division reviewed cases concerning the applicability of PIP coverage to intentional criminal acts. See 269 N.J.Super. at 341-43, 635 A.2d 559. The underlying theme in those cases is the requirement of a legal relationship between the automobile and the plaintiff's injury such that the automobile was a cause of that injury and not merely an "attending circumstance." The Appellate Division in this case concluded that the fact that plaintiff was injured by a bullet that had been propelled from a gun and not from the car itself "attenuate[d] the connection between the automobile and the injury." Id. at 344, 635 A.2d 559. The court further ruled that the parties to the insurance contract did not contemplate that a deliberate shooting of a pedestrian would be within the policy coverage. Because the Appellate Division did not find the requisite "substantial nexus between the automobile and the criminal act," ibid., it affirmed the judgment of the trial court.

II

Plaintiff argues that because the bullet that caused the injury was propelled from an automobile, the incident is within the scope of section four. He asserts that the Appellate Division's denial of coverage based on the criminal activity underlying the injury incorrectly focused on the actor's intent. Under a PIP claim, according to plaintiff, the only relevant question is whether the bullet was propelled from an automobile within the meaning of section four. Plaintiff asks that we not apply the "substantial nexus" test to his case. He argues in the alternative that if the substantial-nexus test does apply, the facts meet that test because the car was "inextricably linked to the crime."

Plaintiff's argument that the substantial-nexus test does not apply to family-member pedestrians need not long detain us. The language of section four is unmistakable in its limitation of PIP coverage to members of the insured's household who "sustained bodily injury * * * as a pedestrian, caused by an automobile or by an object propelled by or from an automobile." In light of the statutory requirement of causation, we have previously applied the substantial-nexus test in the PIP-coverage context, see Smaul v. Irvington General Hospital, 108 N.J. 474, 477-78, 530 A.2d 1251 (1987), and continue to do so in this family-member pedestrian case.

In resisting plaintiff's claim, defendant relies on Westchester Fire Insurance Co. v. Continental Insurance Co., 126 N.J.Super. 29, 312 A.2d 664 (App.Div.1973), aff'd o.b., 65 N.J. 152, 319 A.2d 732 (1974). There the court held that an injury sustained by a victim struck by a board thrown from a moving automobile came within the scope of the automobile-liability-policy provision "arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use" of the automobile and that the automobile carrier was obligated to defend the suit alleging such bodily injury. 126 N.J.Super. at 35, 38, 312 A.2d 664. In reaching that conclusion the Appellate Division expressed doubt about, without however deciding, the proposition that a causal connection could be found "between the discharge of guns or other explosive devices and their happenstance location in the car." Id. at 40, 312 A.2d 664. On the strength of that intimation, defendant asserts that we should reject plaintiff's claim. Moreover, defendant argues, the use of the automobile in this drive-by shooting was irrelevant to plaintiff's injury. According to defendant, because no substantial nexus exists and because no New Jersey case has awarded PIP benefits to victims of shootings, this Court should affirm the judgment below.

III

We begin by setting out the basic principles that guide our deliberation. New Jersey's no-fault compulsory automobile-insurance scheme, found in the New Jersey Automobile Reparation Reform Act, N.J.S.A. 29:6A-1 to -35 (the Act), must be "liberally construed so as to effect the purpose thereof." N.J.S.A. 39:6A-16. This Court has characterized PIP coverage as " 'a social necessity' that should be given 'the broadest application consistent with the statutory language.' " Darel v. Pennsylvania Mfrs. Ass'n Ins. Co., 114 N.J. 416, 425, 555 A.2d 570 (1989) (quoting Amiano v. Ohio Casualty Ins. Co., 85 N.J. 85, 90, 424 A.2d 1179 (1981)); accord Fisher v. Hanover Ins. Co., 224 N.J.Super. 552, 557, 540 A.2d 1344 (App.Div.1988) ; Vicari v. Nationwide Ins., 174 N.J.Super. 463, 468, 416 A.2d 977 (App.Div.1980), certif. denied, 85 N.J. 464, 427 A.2d 562 (1991); New Jersey Mfrs. Ins. Co. v. Griffin, 253 N.J.Super. 173, 178, 601 A.2d 261 (Law Div.1991). Such a broad application represents public policy favoring coverage. See Allstate Ins. Co. v. Malec, 104 N.J. 1, 6, 514 A.2d 832 (1986); JFK Memorial Hosp. v. Kendal, 205 N.J.Super. 456, 458, 501 A.2d 197 (Law Div.1985). Insureds are entitled to coverage in accordance with their objectively-reasonable expectations that are supported by any fair interpretation of the law. See Werner Indus. v. First State Ins. Co., 112 N.J. 30, 35, 548 A.2d 188 (1988); Westchester Fire, supra, 126 N.J.Super. at 36, 312 A.2d 664; see also SL Indus. v. American Motorists Ins. Co., 128 N.J. 188, 205, 607 A.2d 1266 (1992) (discussing insured's objectively-reasonable expectations). In respect of the occurrence, the Legislature sought to ensure "the broadest coverage possible so long as an automobile was involved in that which happened." Pennsylvania Nat'l Mut. Casualty Ins. Co. v. Estate of Miller, 185 N.J.Super. 183, 187, 447 A.2d 1344 (App.Div.1982). Accordingly, "where the Legislature has 'made a choice of language [that] fairly brings a given situation within a statute, it is unimportant that the particular application may not have been contemplated by the legislators.' " Sheeran v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 80 N.J. 548, 556, 404 A.2d 625 (1979) (quoting Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. United States, 504 F.2d 1400, 1402 (C.C.P.A.1974)); accord Griffin, supra, 253 N.J.Super. at 177, 601 A.2d 261.

Section four originally protected against "injury as the result of an automobile accident." L.1972, c. 70, § 4. In 1972 the Legislature broadened the scope of the statute to cover "injury as the result of an accident involving an automobile." L.1972, c. 203, § 3. The amended version was designed to provide the "broadest possible coverage so long as an automobile was involved." Pennsylvania Nat'l, supra, 185 N.J.Super. at 187, 447 A.2d 1344. In 1983, however, the Legislature tightened the requirements for family-member pedestrians, limiting coverage to instances in which the pedestrian was "struck by an automobile." L.1983, c. 362, § 7. In 1984, the Legislature again amended the wording, requiring that the family-member pedestrian be "struck by an automobile or by an object propelled by or from an...

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