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Finding no violation of any fundamental right, the state Supreme Court last Thursday upheld New Jersey’s legislative ban on personal injury suits by uninsured motorists. The unanimous Court overturned the Appellate Division’s ruling that the 1997 law, enacted as part of an overhaul of no-fault insurance, violated due process and equal protection guarantees in the state and federal constitutions. The law, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5a, “did nothing more than subject the right to sue for noneconomic damages in an automobile accident case to the condition that the injured motorist secure liability insurance,” Justice Barry Albin wrote in Caviglia v. Royal Tours of America, A-72. “Preconditions on the filing of lawsuits are a common feature of our laws.” The ruling is bad news to Jorge Caviglia, who sued after suffering serious injuries in 1997 when his Ford Tempo was hit by a bus in North Bergen. Hudson County Superior Court Judge Seymour Margulies dismissed the suit because Caviglia’s insurance had lapsed, but then reversed on a motion for reconsideration. The Appellate Division affirmed, saying the ban would not induce drivers to buy insurance, but the Court said its job was not to pass judgment on the law’s wisdom. The Court called the ban on suits a valid exercise of legislative authority because it advances a legitimate state interest: reduction of insurance premiums. “As the No Fault Act has evolved, the goals of increased insurance availability and cost-containment have become at least as important as the [original] goal of reparation,” Albin wrote. “That the experience of our No-Fault scheme in New Jersey has led the Legislature to redirect its objectives does not render acts in furtherance of current goals constitutionally infirm.” The appellate court found the statute irrational because it barred uninsured drivers from recovering noneconomic damages while permitting them to recover property damages, but the justices were not persuaded that this imperfection rose to a denial of equal protection. “[E]ven if it was legislative oversight to allow an uninsured driver a recovery for property damage, the other means selected to advance the legislative goals are not necessarily invalid,” wrote Albin. “The test is not whether the statute is a perfect creation, but whether it is rational and furthers a legitimate state interest.” Caviglia’s lawyer, Paterson solo practitioner Norberto Yacono, did not return calls. The defendant bus company’s attorney, Floyd Cottrell, who heads a Newark firm, said, “I think the Legislature saw a need to deter uninsured drivers and it was vindicated by this ruling.”

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