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New Jersey Supreme Court Issues Decision In Favor Of NJSBA Argument in AICRA Verbal Threshold Case

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ–The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision today agreeing with the New Jersey State Bar Association that a plaintiff in a verbal threshold auto negligence case does not have to prove that the injury had a serious impact on her life if the plaintiff met one of the six categories as defined by the Automobile Insurance Cost Reduction Act (AICRA). In its decision in the case of DiProspero v. Penn, the Court said “the plain language of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8(a) does not contain a serious life impact standard,” and further stated in the majority opinion delivered by Justice Barry Albin that, “an automobile accident victim who is subject to the threshold and sues for noneconomic damages has to satisfy only one of the AICRA’s six threshold categories and does not have the additional requirement of proving a serious life impact.”

NJSBA President Stuart A. Hoberman said, “We are pleased with the Court's decision, which reflects a long-standing position of the NJSBA. The NJSBA opposes any efforts to limit access to the courts by individuals, including through the verbal threshold, as clearly defined by our mission statement which says we will promote access to the justice system and fairness in its administration."

“This is a victory for statutory construction and the process by which the courts and the Legislature reach their accommodation in establishing policy,” said Succasunna attorney Lewis Stein who prepared the amicus curiae brief (friend of the court) on behalf of the New Jersey State Bar Association and argued the case before the Court.

The NJSBA argued that the statutory language contained in AICRA is clear and unambiguous.

The Court agreed, basing part of its decision on “the plain language of the threshold statute” and determining that applying a serious life impact test, established in the wake of a predecessor statute, to the limitation on lawsuit threshold was not the Legislature’s intent in AICRA.

The serious impact requirement originated in a pre-AICRA case interpreting the original verbal threshold statute, Oswin v. Shaw. In that case, the Court held that, in addition to meeting one of the injury categories delineated in the verbal threshold statute through objective medical evidence, a plaintiff had to prove she suffered a serious life impact before she could seek noneconomic damages in an auto negligence lawsuit.

Noting that the Legislature specifically incorporated the objective medical evidence standard from Oswin, the Court concluded in its opinion that the Legislature was aware of the case and “consciously chose not to incorporate another of Oswin’s holdings, the serious life impact standard.”

DiProspero v. Penn, questioned whether, in light of AICRA, a “serious impact” must still be considered before an accident victim could sue for noneconomic damages if the victim chose a “limitation on lawsuit” threshold in exchange for lower premium payments on an automobile insurance policy. AICRA restricts victims who choose the limitation on lawsuit threshold from suing for noneconomic damages unless they suffer a bodily injury which results in death; dismemberment; significant disfigurement or significant scarring; displaced fractures; loss of a fetus; or a permanent injury within a reasonable degree of medical probability, other than scarring or disfigurement.

“We did not participate in this case because of our positions on behalf of plaintiffs or defendants,” said Stein. “As we stated in our brief, statutory construction recognizes where there is specifically set forth the purpose of the statute and the language used specifically provides for a limitation, there is no basis for a court crafting additional limitations.”

The New Jersey State Bar Association, incorporated in 1899, is dedicated to the continuing education of lawyers and the public, to reforming and improving the legal system and to aiding in the administration of justice.