NAII Comments on Brief Opposing N.J. Appeals Court Ruling in Wrongful Death Case

May 29, 2003

The National Association of Independent Insurers has issued a bulletin commenting on its recent filing of an amicus brief, which opposes a New Jersey appeals court’s conclusion that wrongful death and survival actions are two separate and distinct causes of action.

If the case is upheld it “will result in significant expansion of insurers’ liability,” said the NAII. Senior director and counsel Michael G. Koziol warned that, “If the New Jersey Supreme Court upholds this decision, it will have a major impact on insurers’ bottom lines – most likely at a cost to consumers, who could end up paying higher premiums.”

The NAII described the case, Vassiliu v. Prudential et al., as involving the claims made by the wife of a man killed in an auto accident who sued several defendants. “The Superior Court determined the at-fault driver was 100 percent liable and granted total damages and prejudgment interest award of more than $2 million,” said the bulletin. “The plaintiff later filed an underinsured motorist (UIM) claim against the at-fault driver, requiring two insurers to pay from their respective UIM policies. The insurers appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in ordering separate policy limits for the wrongful death claim and the survivor claim. The appellate court concluded that the estate and the decedent’s heirs were each a separate “person” injured by the accident, despite the fact that the victim was the sole individual who suffered bodily injuries from the accident.”

In its brief, the NAII maintains that “insurance policy language makes coverage limits clear, and that New Jersey law states that wrongful death actions are derivative of the single bodily injury of the victim. The court’s unwarranted reversal of well-settled law and its expansion of the coverage afforded by mandatory bodily injury coverage further exacerbates the issues of availability and affordability of insurance in this state.” It concluded that “The decision is contrary to existing law and public policy and must be reversed.”

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