Grant v. Amica Mutual Insurance Co.

Annotate this Case
SYLLABUS
 

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

Frank Grant v. Amica Mutual Insurance Company (A-91-97)

 
[N.B., This is a companion case to New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Co. v. Breen and Magnifico v. Rutgers Casualty Insurance Co., both of which have also been decided today.]

Argued January 6, 1998 -- Decided May 12, 1998

Stein, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

On October 19, 1992, Frank Grant was injured in an automobile accident while driving his own car. He had $25,000 in underinsured motorist's (UIM) coverage under a policy issued by the Market Transition Facility (MTF). The person who cause the accident had $25,000 of liability coverage and was not, therefore, underinsured with respect to Grant's personal policy. Grant settled his claim for the limit of the other driver's policy.

Grant lived with his brother, Michael Grant, when the accident occurred. Michael's auto policy with Amica Mutual Insurance Company (Amica) provided $100,000 in UIM coverage. Because Michael's UIM coverage was higher than the other driver's liability limit, Grant sought UIM benefits from Amica. The company denied coverage based on this Court's decision in Aubrey v. Harleysville Insurance Co..

Grant sued Amica. The trial court found for the insurance company and dismissed the case. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed, relying on its decision in New Jersey Manufacturers v. Breen. That decision concluded that Aubrey was not retroactive.

The Supreme Court granted Amica's petition for certification.

HELD: Under the circumstances of this case, the claimant was entitled to access to his brother's auto insurance UIM coverage because he was a family member living with the insured at the time of the accident. The retroactivity of Aubrey v. Harleysville Insurance Co. was not germane to the result in the within matter and should not have been addressed below.

1. Based on the plain language of the Amica insurance policy and for the reasons expressed in New Jersey Manufacturers v. Breen, the brother's UIM coverage was held by Grant and was available to compensate him for his injuries. (pp. 4-5)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is MODIFIED and AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI, and COLEMAN join in JUSTICE STEIN's opinion.


 
SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY
A- 91 September Term 1997
 

FRANK GRANT,

Plaintiff-Respondent,

v.

AMICA MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY,

Defendant-Appellant.

Argued January 6, 1998 -- Decided May 12, 1998

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

Daniel J. Pomeroy argued the cause for appellant (Mortenson and Pomeroy, attorneys).

Fred Shahrooz-Scampato argued the cause for respondent (Eichen & Cahn, attorneys; Barry R. Eichen, of counsel).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by
STEIN, J.
This appeal raises questions of underinsured motorist (UIM) coverage that are virtually indistinguishable from the issues presented and resolved in New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Co. v. Breen, ___ N.J. ___ (1998), and are germane to the issues resolved in Magnifico v. Rutgers Casualty Insurance Co., ___ N.J. ___ (1998), both of which appeals are also decided today. The primary issue concerns the right of plaintiff, Frank Grant,

injured in an accident while driving his own automobile, to recover UIM benefits under the automobile policy issued by Amica Mutual Insurance Company (Amica) to his brother with whom Grant lived. Grant's personal policy had a UIM limit equal to the tortfeasor's liability limit. His brother's policy provided UIM coverage greater than the tortfeasor's liability limit and made available that coverage to family members of the insured. As in Breen, a secondary issue is whether our decision in Aubrey v. Harleysville Insurance Cos., 140 N.J. 397 (1995), should be applied only prospectively.

I
 

On October 19, 1992, Grant was injured in an automobile accident while driving his own car. His car had $25,000 of UIM coverage under a policy issued by the Market Transition Facility (MTF). The tortfeasor had $25,000 of liability coverage. The tortfeasor therefore was not underinsured with respect to Grant's personal policy. Grant settled his claim against the tortfeasor for the policy limit.
Grant lived with his brother, Michael Grant (Michael), when the accident occurred. Michael's policy with Amica provided $100,000 of UIM coverage. Because Michael's UIM limit was higher than the tortfeasor's liability limit, Grant sought UIM benefits under Michael's Amica policy. Amica denied Grant's claim on the

ground that Aubrey prevented Grant from collecting UIM benefits under any UIM policy other than his own.
Grant sued Amica seeking a declaration that UIM benefits were available to him under Michael's policy, and sought an order to show cause why arbitration should not be compelled. Following oral argument, the trial court sustained Amica's contentions based on Aubrey, dismissed the order to show cause, and dismissed Grant's complaint.
Grant appealed. In an unpublished opinion the Appellate Division reversed, relying on its opinion in New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Co. v. Breen, 297 N.J. Super. 503 (App. Div.), mod. and aff'd, ___ N.J. ___ (1998). The court held that "Aubrey should not be applied to claims under policies issued before the date of the Aubrey decision," and remanded for an order compelling arbitration of Grant's UIM claim.

II
 

As explained fully in Breen, supra, ___ N.J. at ___-___ (slip op. at 6-7, 11-13), the Appellate Division's rationale in both Grant and Breen for applying Aubrey only prospectively rested on a flawed premise concerning the scope of our disapproval in Aubrey of Landi v. Gray, 228 N.J. Super. 619 (App. Div. 1988). We stated explicitly in Breen that "as amplified by French, our disapproval of Landi should be understood to refer only to the Landi court's invalidation of the exclusion of UIM

coverage when an underinsured vehicle of a resident family member caused the claimant's injury." Breen, supra, ___ N.J. at ___ (slip op. at 7). Accordingly, as in Breen, the Grant panel's holding that Aubrey should be applied only prospectively was not necessary to sustain that court's disposition of Grant's appeal.
We also observed in Breen, relying on French v. New Jersey School Board Ass'n Insurance Group, 149 N.J. 478, 487 (1997), "that a policy 'held' by the claimant for purposes of satisfying the statutory standard that determines whether a tortfeasor's vehicle is underinsured need not necessarily be the policy purchased by the claimant." Breen, supra, ___ N.J. at ___ (slip op. at 8). In French, supra, we explained that for a claimant who satisfies the threshold for UIM coverage
the statute contemplates that the insured is free to pursue UIM benefits under other policies under which he or she may be insured--whether under his or her personal policy, as the occupant of an employer's vehicle, the permissive occupant of a motor vehicle owned by any other insured person, or as the resident in the household of a relative possessing his or her own UIM insurance. Each of those UIM policies is opened up to the insured once the threshold test is met.

[149 N.J. at 495 (emphasis added).]

We also stressed in Breen that policy language is the critical factor in UIM coverage litigation. ___ N.J. at ___ - ___ (slip op. at 9-10).
Because the facts essential to a resolution of the coverage question are undisputed, and the policy language is dispositive, we discern no need for a plenary hearing as urged by Amica to

resolve the issue of Grant's reasonable expectations. By its terms the Amica policy's UIM coverage was available to Grant's brother Michael, the named insured, and to "any family member." Although the Amica policy's UM/UIM endorsement as it appears in the record does not define family member, that term indisputably applies to Grant who resided with his brother at the time of the accident. Based on the plain language of the Amcia policy, we conclude that the policy's UIM coverage was "held" by Grant and that the policy's UIM coverage is available to compensate Grant for his injuries. See Breen, supra, ___ N.J. at ___ - ___ (slip op. at 8-11).

III
 

As in Breen, we disapprove of those portions of the Appellate Division's disposition that determined that the retroactivity of Aubrey was germane to the result and that accorded Aubrey only prospective effect. As modified, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI, and COLEMAN join in JUSTICE STEIN's opinion.

 

SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY
 

NO. A-91

SEPTEMBER TERM 1997
ON APPEAL FROM
ON CERTIFICATION TO Appellate Division, Superior Court

FRANK GRANT,

Plaintiff-Respondent,

v.

AMICA MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY,

Defendant-Appellant.

DECIDED

May 12, 1998
Chief Justice Poritz PRESIDING
OPINION BY Justice Stein
CONCURRING OPINION BY DISSENTING OPINION BY
CHECKLIST
MODIFY & AFFIRM CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ X JUSTICE HANDLER X JUSTICE POLLOCK X JUSTICE O'HERN X JUSTICE GARIBALDI X JUSTICE STEIN X JUSTICE COLEMAN X TOTALS
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