U.S. v. Studivant, 74--2130

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
Writing for the CourtBefore GIBBONS, BIGGS and WEIS; WEIS; BIGGS
Citation529 F.2d 673
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Appellant, v. Franklin STUDIVANT et al., Appellees.
Docket NumberNo. 74--2130,74--2130
Decision Date22 January 1976

Page 673

529 F.2d 673
UNITED STATES of America, Appellant,
Franklin STUDIVANT et al., Appellees.
No. 74--2130.
United States Court of Appeals,
Third Circuit.
Argued Oct. 29, 1975.
Decided Jan. 22, 1976.

Page 674

Jonathan L. Goldstein, U.S. Atty., William Kanter, William L. Patton, Thomas S. Moore, Robert S. Greenspan, Dept. of Justice, Washington, D.C., for appellant.

Phillip J. Boscarell, Jr., Lewis, Siegal, Wood & Needel, Trenton, N.J., for appellees.

Before GIBBONS, BIGGS and WEIS, Circuit Judges.


WEIS, Circuit Judge.

The question presented here is whether the United States is bound by the provision of a state statute which requires that those claiming benefits under the Act shall file a notice of intent within a specified time. The district court held that the time requirement was not a statute of limitations and that the federal government must abide by the notice provision. We agree and affirm.

The appeal is from an order dismissing one of the government's two counts in a complaint based on the Federal Medical Care Recovery Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2651--2653. 1 The suit was brought to recover the cost of medical and hospital care provided two members of the armed services injured in an automobile accident in New Jersey. The defendants Studivant are the owner and operator of the car in which the servicemen were passengers, and the other defendant, John A. Waddington, is the Director of Motor Vehicles of New Jersey.

The government alleges that the Studivants operated their automobile in a negligent manner on June 7, 1970 and that they are liable for the government's expenditures in treating the servicemen's injuries. It appears that the Studivants are uninsured and unable to satisfy a judgment against them. They have never been served with process and the count against them is not before us. 2

The second count of plaintiff's complaint asserts a claim against the Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund Board of New Jersey, which functions under the jurisdiction of defendant Waddington. The government contends that it is a 'qualified person' as defined by the New Jersey Statute and thus is entitled to be paid by the fund because of inability to recover from the Studivants.

Page 675

The defendant Waddington filed an answer on behalf of the Board setting forth a number of defenses, including the government's failure to give timely notice of its claim as required by the statute. The district court was persuaded by this point, granted the Board's 'Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings,' and dismissed the complaint as to Waddington.

New Jersey maintains an Unsatisfied Claims Fund to provide relief for victims of automobile accidents who are unable to collect damages from financially irresponsible tortfeasors. The enabling legislation contains certain restrictions, including a restrictive definition of 'qualified persons' who are eligible for benefits and a requirement of timely notice of intent to submit a claim. N.J.S.A. § 39:6--65 provides in part that 'as a condition precedent' to a right of payment from the fund, a 'qualified person' must give 'notice to the board within 15 days of receiving notice that an insurer had disclaimed on a policy of insurance.' 3

The government avers that, while the registration of the Studivant car certified that it was covered by the Allstate Insurance Company, on March 15, 1971 the carrier advised that neither Studivant was insured. 4 The government did not file its notice with the Board until May 25, 1971, more than seven weeks after the statutory time had expired. The United States takes the position that the time specified in the New Jersey Statute is in the nature of a statute of limitations which is not applicable to it.

A state statute of limitations is not binding on the United States in a suit under the Federal Medical Care Recovery Act. United States v. Gera,409 F.2d 117 (3d Cir. 1969). See United States v. Summerlin, 310 U.S. 414, 60 S.Ct. 1019, 84 L.Ed. 1283 (1940). The question presented then is whether the time set for giving notice is a statute of limitations.

Preliminarily, we note that a statute of limitations is a restriction on the time within which a party may institute proceedings in an appropriate court. 5 The limitations do not affect the merits of the controversy or the underlying right to recover, but rather are directed toward setting the time when resort must be had to the court. By way of contrast, a condition precedent affects the cause of action itself, the right of a party to obtain judicial relief, and not the time when suit must be filed.

The New Jersey statute terms the requirement of notice to the Board 'a condition precedent.' This requirement goes to the validity of the claim itself: absent the required notice, the injured party has no right under the statute to receive compensation. Keith v. Petrakakas, 98 N.J.Super. 153, 236 A.2d 402 (1967), aff'g, 95 N.J.Super. 262, 230 A.2d 543 (1967). Payment from the fund is not based on a common law right but is the product of a purely statutory remedy to which a state may validly apply conditions and restrictions.

Page 676

United States v. Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, 460 F.2d 17 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 409 U.S. 979, 93 S.Ct. 308, 34 L.Ed.2d 243 (1972), held that a suit by the United States was barred because the government failed to comply with a condition precedent. There the statute provided that no recovery could be had under uninsured motorist coverage unless the claimant filed suit against the tortfeasor within one year after the accident. The court determined that since the United States had not complied with the statutory obligation, on cause of action had accrued and one could not be created by the federal exemption from a state statute of limitations.

This is not a case where a notification requirement was appended to a common law cause of action, see United States v. City of Minneapolis, 68 F.Supp. 585 (D.Minn.1946). Rather, it is one where compliance with the statute must be observed before any rights can accrue. The notice provision does not affect the time when suit must be filed, but it does determine whether a cause of action exists. Nor is this case governed by United States v. Moore, 469 F.2d 788 (3d Cir. 1972), cert. denied, 411 U.S. 905, 93 S.Ct. 1528, 36 L.Ed.2d 195 (1973). Moore held that a state law interspousal immunity did not preclude the government from maintaining a suit. The court reasoned that the immunity was merely a disability attached to the right to sue and did not destroy the defendant's tort liability. The underlying cause of action was based on common law negligence and not on a statute which created a restricted right of recovery. Here, failure to comply with the condition precedent prevented the government from acquiring a cause of action. With no fundamental 'circumstances creating a tort liability upon' the Board, the United States had no basis for its suit. See United States v. Fort Benning Rifle and Pistol Club, 387 F.2d 884 (5th Cir. 1967). 6

We conclude that the district court properly dismissed the complaint because of the government's failure to comply with the statutory condition precedent. 7

The judgment of the district court will be affirmed.

BIGGS, Circuit Judge (dissenting).


This Court held in United States v. Moore, 469 F.2d 788 (1972), that the Federal Medical Care Recovery Act (FMCRA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2651--2653, created an independent right of action in the United States, not subject to a Maine state barrier, i.e., a right of action unimpaired by the vagaries of Maine state family immunity laws. 1 Relying on

Page 677

United States v. Standard Oil Co., 332 U.S. 301, 305--06, 67 S.Ct. 1604, 91 L.Ed. 2067 (1947), this Court observed: 'The Act is a federal law which creates an independent substantive federal right, enacted by Congress pursuant to its constitutional powers in matters of military affairs and federal fiscal policy.' 2 (Emphasis added). 469 F.2d at 793. This is plainly a finding that Congress was exercising its plenary constitutional powers in enacting the FMCRA. See the heading '3.' in this opinion, infra.

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