PIP Reimbursement Claims Barred as to Public Entities Regardless of Their Conduct

By Gina M. Zippilli, Esq.

In this personal injury protection (“PIP”) case, New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Company (“NJM”) sought reimbursement of PIP benefits from a Fire Department and Firehouse (“the Firehouse”).  The basis of its claim was simple:  The Firehouse hosted an event whereupon an auxiliary firefighter was invited; he became intoxicated during the course of the evening; left the event; and caused a motor vehicle accident.  NJM insured the vehicle hit by the firefighter.  In the end, the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division in NJM v. the Rutherford Volunteer Fire Department, 2014 N.J. Super. Unpub. Lexis 2559 (October 24, 2014) held that the Firehouse was immune from PIP Reimbursement suits under the Tort Claims Act (“TCA”)regardless of the conduct of the public entity.

The court’s analysis focused on two statutes: the New Jersey Automobile Reparation Reform Act (N.J.S.A. 39:6A-1 et seq.) governing PIP reimbursement actions, and the Tort Claims Act (N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 et seq.) governing public entity tort immunity.  Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:6A-9.1(a), an insurer paying PIP benefits to an insured has the right to recover those payments from “any tortfeasor” who was not required to maintain PIP benefits at the time of the accident.  The general rule of liability for public entities under the TCA, however, is that they are immune from suit unless a statutory provision permitting an action exists.  Clearly the Firehouse was not required to maintain PIP benefits.  Thus, the question was whether it could be considered “any tortfeasor” by which a claim could be asserted.

NJM argued that while public entities were normally immune from reimbursement actions, the conduct of the Firehouse, namely serving a visibly intoxicated individual, removed it from the protections of the TCA thereby allowing the claim to proceed.  In other words, NJM’s position was that public entities were immune only if their conduct fell within the confines of the TCA. The court disagreed and held that the TCA is strictly construed to permit lawsuits only where specifically delineated by statute.  Here, no such statute existed and the claim could not proceed.