Conflicting Dictionaries

Perez v. Farmers Mutual Fire Ins. Co., 417 N.J. Super. 403 (App. Div. 2011).  “The issue presented by this appeal is whether a fifteen-passenger van owned by a church, which it used to transport members of the congregation to church services, falls within the definition of an “automobile” contained in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-2(a), thus requiring the van’s insurer to provide coverage for personal injury protection (PIP) benefits.”  So began this opinion by Judge Skillman.

The statutory definition of “automobile” is limited to two types of vehicles, as the court explained.  The first type is “a private passenger automobile of a private passenger or station wagon type that is owned or hired and is neither used as a public or livery conveyance for passengers nor rented to others with a driver.”  The second type is “a motor vehicle with a pickup body, a delivery sedan, a van, or a panel truck or a camper type vehicle used for recreational purposes owned by an individual or by husband and wife who are residents of the same household, not customarily used in the occupation, profession or business of the insured other than farming or ranching.”

After carefully parsing the statutory language, Judge Skillman’s opinion held that the five-row, fifteen-passenger vehicle in Perez was not of the first type because its customary use (except in some few very large families) is not for private passenger purposes.  The court distinguished Giordano v. Allstate Ins. Co., 260 N.J. Super. 329 (App. Div. 1992), which had held that a seven-passenger minivan came within the definition of “automobile” since, among other things, it was the functional equivalent of a station wagon.  The vehicle was not a “van” of the second type either, since it was owned by the church, not by an individual or a husband and wife living together.

The court recognized that Giordano had relied on a Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary definition of “van” as “an enclosed vehicle used for the transportation of goods or animals.”  But the court found another dictionary definition, from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, which included the transportation of people, “more accurately describes the commonly understood meaning of ‘van’ than the dictionary definition cited in Giordano.”

This “battle of the dictionaries” was not dispositive of either Perez or Giordano.  But it does show that different dictionaries may contain different definitions, and a different definition may determine the outcome in some cases.