The Appellate Division Declines to Rewrite N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b)

Castano v. Augustine, 475 N.J. Super. 71 (App. Div. 2023). N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b), enacted as part of the reform of New Jersey’s automobile insurance system, states: “Any person who is convicted of, or pleads guilty to, operating a motor vehicle in violation of [N.J.S.A.] 39:4-50, [N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4a],[1] or a similar statute from any other jurisdiction, in connection with an accident, shall have no cause of action for recovery of economic or noneconomic loss sustained as a result of the accident.” In today’s decision in this matter, Judge Messano posed the issue as “whether, in the absence of a conviction or guilty plea to DWI, the statute nevertheless bars the claim of a plaintiff who was seriously injured in a traffic accident after admittedly drinking liquor and beer at several establishments during the day, and who may have had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that exceeded the legal limit at the time of the accident.” After granting a motion for leave to appeal, and applying de novo review to a Law Division ruling that denied a defense motion for summary judgment, the Appellate Division affirmed.

Though Judge Messano provided his usual level of detailed analysis, including invocation of settled principles of statutory interpretation, the basis for decision was the plain language of the statute. The Legislature had “the clear intention to deny a plaintiff convicted of DWI the possibility of prevailing in a suit for damages arising from the subject motor vehicle accident by eliminating the convicted plaintiff’s ’cause of action.'” But that “draconian consequence” was imposed only on “those prospective litigants who actually had been convicted of DWI.”

Defendants argued that the purpose of the statute was not only to reform the insurance system but to crack down on drunk driving. Judge Messano accepted that premise. But that did not change the fact that the Legislature used the clear language that it did.

Defendants also cited cases in which our courts “have strayed from a strict interpretation of the plain language of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5 to serve other policy goals.” But Judge Messano found those cases to “have little application to the facts of this case. One of them was Perrelli v. Pastorelle, 206 N.J. 193 (2011), a case under N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) that featured in another Appellate Division decision just one week ago.

The facts of today’s case were disputed, as plaintiff himself testified at some points that he had been drunk, but at other times that he had alcohol in his system but was not drunk. Other evidence was also in conflict. “By denying a cause of action to only those who have been adjudicated guilty of DWI beyond a reasonable doubt, the Legislature avoided the need for courts to resolve disputed facts, as in this case.” Accordingly, the panel affirmed the Law Division’s denial of summary judgment to defendants.