N.J. Court Holds Guaranty Fund Should Pay Illegal Aliens’ Accident Costs

May 19, 2006

New Jersey’s Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that illegal immigrants injured by uninsured drivers can have medical costs covered by a fund whose money comes from insurance fees.

The 7-0 decision by New Jersey highest court, which reverses two lower court rulings, comes as lawmakers in Washington and Trenton consider how to deal with illegal immigration.

“It’s a victory for a lot of injured people who were being denied benefits because they are not legal residents,” said Victor M. Covelli, a lawyer for Victor Manuel Caballero, a Mexican who was a car passenger when hurt in 2001, five months after he came to live with family members in Bradley Beach.

The decision could have statewide financial impact. Covelli said he had 20 clients who might now qualify for benefits. New Jersey has about 360,000 illegal immigrants, or about 4 percent of the population, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Caballero, now 23 and still living at the Jersey Shore, sought compensation from the Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund. He was denied when a trial judge and an appellate panel found he did not satisfy the fund’s residency requirement.

The trial judge, state Superior Court Judge Jamie S. Perri, said Caballero’s “tenuous ties to the state of New Jersey during the five months before the accident, coupled with his status as an illegal immigrant, evidence a relationship with the state that falls short of those of a bona fide resident.”

The judge added that “without the legal ability or authority to remain in the state, plaintiff was incapable of reasonably forming the requisite intent to remain for any length of time in New Jersey.”

The Supreme Court disagreed, asserting that the meaning of “resident” is not constant under New Jersey law, but depends on the context.

‘”A person may be a ‘resident’ even if the intent to remain ultimately is not realized,” Justice James R. Zazzali wrote for the court, adding, ‘”Other jurisdictions have determined that illegal aliens can qualify as residents under various state statutes.”

The high court determined that Caballero’s intention to remain in New Jersey satisfied the fund’s residency requirement and sent the case back to the trial judge. His lawyer said they would seek a jury trial on how much benefits he could collect.

The fund’s administrator, the nonprofit New Jersey Guaranty Association, and its lawyer had no immediate comment. The association is comprised of insurance companies.

The court’s opinion gave this account of the case:

Caballero was hospitalized for a week, having surgery to his abdomen and intestines, after a co-worker giving him a ride to work fell asleep and struck a parked tractor-trailer. The co-worker was driving an uninsured and unregistered vehicle. None of Caballero’s family has insurance.

Caballero incurred about $38,300 in medical bills and $1,482 in lost wages. He made about $400 a week repairing computers, working 14-15 hours a day. He has returned to that job, but cannot work as many hours or lift heavy computers, and still has pain and trouble sleeping.

He has stated he will remain in New Jersey for as long as he can, “as long as they don’t deport me,” the court opinion said.

Since the accident, Caballero has married and had a child, but probably has not gained legal residency, said his lawyer.

“I’m sure, like all of the other foreign-born people, he is watching the news closely and would like to change his status,” Covelli said.

Ironically, although the decision opens the door for injured illegal immigrants to seek compensation for medical bills, that will not apply to Caballero, his lawyer said.

Because the co-worker’s car was from Pennsylvania, the fund will not cover medical costs, he said. As a result, Caballero’s medical costs — like those of other patients who cannot pay — are handled by a taxpayer-supported fund for charity care.

However, Caballero will seek compensation for pain and
suffering, which is capped at $15,000, Covelli said.

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