In New Jersey, a standard automobile policy provides personal injury protection (PIP) benefits of $250,000. However, when the legislature enacted N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.3(e), it gave consumers the option to purchase limits lower than the standard $250,000 required by law. Since this option has been offered, courts have differed on whether an economic damage could be presented by a plaintiff if his or her medical bills are in excess of the lower chosen PIP limits or whether plaintiffs' medical bills up to $250,000 should be precluded as evidence at trial pursuant to N.J.S.A.39:6A-12 because the plaintiff voluntarily chose the lower limits. This issue was finally ruled upon in a published opinion by the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division on June 1, in the case of Haines v. McHenry.
In Haines, the Appellate Division was faced with two cases in which the plaintiffs chose PIP limits in the amount of $15,000. In both matters, the plaintiffs incurred medical bills in excess of $15,000. They both sought to recover the amounts in excess of $15,000 as an economic damage at trial. In both matters, the trial judge dismissed the plaintiffs' economic claims for medical bills in excess of their lower chosen PIP limits. The Appellate Division reversed the dismissals and ruled that any amount that is in excess of the PIP limits chosen by a plaintiff, no matter what the amount, is recoverable at trial as an economic loss.
Comment: The Haines decision puts to rest an issue that has become all too common in the defense of transportation cases in New Jersey. Its effect will be that a tortfeasor (the party at fault) will be responsible to compensate a plaintiff, who chooses lower PIP limits on his or her policy, to pay for medical expenses that exceed those limits.
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Jennifer R. Williams