Two Lessons in Reading Title 39

Perrelli v. Pastorelle, 206 N.J. 193 (2011); Voss v. Tranquilino, 206 N.J. 93 (2011).  Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided two cases involving two different sub-sections of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5.  Both cases ultimately involved the question of whether reading the statute literally would produce absurd results.  The results were interesting.

In Perrelli, the Court unanimously ruled that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) barred a person who was a passenger in her own uninsured automobile from pursuing a personal injury action for damages.  That statute provided that a person who, at the time of an auto accident, is required to but does not maintain medical expense benefits coverage mandated by another statute, “shall have no cause of action for recovery of economic or noneconomic loss sustained as a result of an accident while operating an uninsured automobile” (emphasis added).

Plaintiff contended that the plain language of that statute did not bar her claim because she was merely a passenger in her own car and was therefore not “operating” the vehicle.   Judge Stern, writing for the Court, concluded that plaintiff’s literal reading “would be contrary to public policy,” expressed in this and other statutes that the opinion discussed, of requiring insurance, and would lead to “a manifestly absurd result.”  The Court rightly rejected the idea that the Legislature intended “to allow the culpably uninsured person to violate the law and not suffer its consequences.”

In Voss, the Court affirmed a decision of the Appellate Division on the opinion below, by a 5-2 vote.  That case involved N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b), which states that a driver who is convicted of or pleads guilty to driving while intoxicated 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.”  Plaintiff got into an accident on his motorcycle after drinking alcohol at a restaurant.  His blood alcohol level was over twice the legal limit, and he pled guilty to DWI.

Plaintiff then sued the restaurant.  The restaurant moved to dismiss the claim based on section 4.5(b).  Both lower courts denied the motion, reasoning that the Dram Shop Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:22-1 to -7, which allowed such suits to proceed, governed, and was not impliedly repealed by the subsequently enacted N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b).  The majority of the Supreme Court adopted the opinion of the Appellate Division.  The primary intent of the law that included section 4.5(b) was to effect auto insurance reform, including premium reduction, and there was no indication in legislative history that the Legislature intended to alter the Dram Shop Act.

Justice Albin, joined by Justice Rivera-Soto, dissented.  They argued that the language of the statute was “crystal clear,” and that the purpose of the law was “to deter drunk driving,” not merely to reduce the cost of or otherwsie reform auto insurance.

The dissenters also cited the principle that the Legislature is presumed to be aware of its own prior enactments.  Had the Legislature wished to achieve the result for which the majority of the Court voted, the Legislature could have written section 4.5(b) to say that there would be no cause of action “except for cases arising under the Dram Shop Act.”  The Legislature had to make a policy choice, Justice Albin said, between (1) deterring taverns from serving intoxicated customers by exempting suits against taverns from section 4.5(b) or (2) penalizing the drunk driver by barring all suits for personal injuries.  Given what the dissenters saw as the plain language of section 4.5(b), the majority was improperly “engaging in judicial tinkering” that substituted its own policy preference for that of the Legislature.

These two cases illustrate several principles of statutory interpretation and construction.  They also show how those principles can lead reasonable judges to dramatically contrary results.  Ultimately, the Legislature will have the final word as to whether the Court was correct in either or both of these cases.