As a St. Louis semi truck accident attorney, I know that even when an accident is not a client’s fault, that client may still be less than a perfect driver. That’s why Missouri and most other states allow people who are partially at fault for their accidents to still recover money — they just recover less than they otherwise would have, proportional to their share of the fault. This is also true in New Jersey, but that state has another law that specially forbids survival actions when the driver who was killed was driving without insurance. A survival action is an action brought on behalf of a deceased person for negligence that caused the death; a wrongful death case, by contrast, is brought by the deceased person’s family for emotional and financial losses to them. In Aronberg v. Tolbert, the New Jersey Supreme Court extended the survival actions ban to wrongful death actions.
Lawrence Aronberg was killed at the age of 34 when a tractor-trailer “careened into” the rear of his car on the New Jersey Turnpike. His mother, Sheila Aronberg, brought wrongful death and survival action claims against the truck driver, Wendell Tolbert, and trucking company Fleetwood Taggart. The survival action requested damages for Lawrence Aronberg’s pain and suffering before death, medical expenses and funeral expenses. The wrongful death action damages for emotional losses to his mother and brother. However, Lawrence Aronberg was uninsured at the time of the crash; his insurance had lapsed three weeks earlier due to failure to pay his premiums. As a result, the trial court found the survival action was barred by a New Jersey law forbidding people who fail to carry auto insurance from bringing personal injury claims. However, the trial court found that the wrongful death action was not barred because it was brought by Lawrence Aronberg’s mother and brother, not Aronberg’s estate. The Appellate Division affirmed this in a split decision. The majority found that the two laws serve different purposes and that nothing in the auto insurance law can be read to prevent innocent family members from recovering because a decedent failed to carry insurance. The dissenters argued that the insurance law “unmistakably declares that no cause of action arises” when operating an uninsured vehicle. The defendants appealed again.
The New Jersey Supreme Court was more friendly to the defendants. It read the insurance statute as an attempt by the state legislature to give motorists an incentive to buy insurance. The Wrongful Death Act was intended to benefit immediate family members, it said, but the Act’s language says family may sue over any act that “would, if death had not ensued, have entitled the person injured to maintain an action for damages.” In this case, if Aronberg had lived, he would not have been entitled to maintain an action for damages, because he was uninsured. Thus, the court unanimously ruled that heirs may not bring wrongful death actions when the decedent was killed while driving without insurance. The majority in the Appellate Division ruled otherwise, in part, because it found that this would create an absurd result because it would penalize Sheila Aronberg for her son’s failure to maintain insurance. The high court conceded that “Some may think that such a result is too draconian and not necessary to enforce compliance” — but declined to overturn the insurance law, because no constitutional principle was at issue. Finally, it dismissed the argument that its own 2001 decision in Miller v. Estate of Sperling applies, noting that the claim in that case was viable. Thus, the New Jersey Supreme Court remanded the case with orders to dismiss the wrongful death claim as well.
As a Missouri tractor-trailer accident lawyer, I am sorry for Sheila Aronberg and any other families in the same position. The New Jersey legislature may not have intended to revoke innocent families’ rights to recover damages when it passed the insurance law, but it appears that this was the effect. As a result, families of people who are killed by negligent truck drivers will now be unable to recover any of the serious financial damages that a truck accident creates. This can include serious financial losses to a family that loses its breadwinner, as well as high medical costs for weeks or months of treatment for very serious injuries. Allowing truck drivers and trucking companies to avoid liability for their negligence is also very bad public policy, in my opinion as a southern Illinois big rig crash attorney. It remains to be seen whether the New Jersey legislature will be interested in changing the law, but the high court seemed to suggest it with its statement about what “some may think.”
Carey, Danis & Lowe represents people who were seriously injured or lost a loved one because of unsafe decisions by a truck driver or trucking company. If you or someone you love was a victim, don’t hesitate to call us to discuss how we can help. For a free, confidential case evaluation, send us a message online or call toll-free at 1-877-678-3400.
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