As a Philadelphia accident lawyer, I routinely handle cases that straddle the Pennsylvania state border with New Jersey. Because New Jersey is part of the Philadelphia metro area, it’s not uncommon for a New Jersey resident to be involved in an auto accident in Pennsylvania, or vice versa. Occasionally, this can cause problems for drivers making insurance claims outside their home state. In Amica Mutual Insurance Co. v. Fogel, the situation was similar: the Fogel family had moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, and taken their Amica insurance policy with them. Amica knew about the move. However, when the family was involved in a bad accident in Pennsylvania, the company had not yet converted the policy to a Pennsylvania policy, which would give the Fogels more compensation. In this ruling, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that New Jersey choice-of-law rules apply to the dispute, but point to Pennsylvania law.
The Fogels moved to Pennsylvania in August 2008, and father Edward Fogel called Amica in September 2008 to notify it that they had moved permanently. The company began billing in Pennsylvania immediately, but told him it could not convert his policy to a Pennsylvania policy until he and his wife had Pennsylvania driver’s licenses and vehicle registration. That did not happen until early 2009. However, in October of 2008. Edward Fogel and his three daughters were hit head-on by an allegedly intoxicated driver. The crash killed daughter Melissa Fogel and seriously injured the others. The at-fault driver had liability insurance of $100,000, which was paid but did not meet the family’s financial needs. The family had PIP insurance for $250,000 per family member. However, under Pennsylvania law, they would be entitled to “stack” their policies for more than one vehicle, collecting more money; New Jersey did not allow this. The Fogels sought to collect under Pennsylvania law, and Amica filed in New Jersey for a declaratory judgment that New Jersey law applies. This was transferred to Pennsylvania district court, which eventually granted summary judgment in favor of Amica. The Fogels appealed to the Third Circuit.
They had better luck at the appeals court. The Third started by noting that under existing caselaw, New Jersey law should be chosen because New Jersey was the forum in which the case began. It then applied New Jersey law to determine which state’s law controls the actual insurance dispute. A 1998 New Jersey Appellate Division case, NJ Manufacturers Insurance Co. v. MacVicar, had strikingly similar facts’ to the Fogels’ case, the Third said; that family also sought to apply Pennsylvania law to a New Jersey policy after moving but before converting the policy. That case stayed in New Jersey state court, however, and the Appellate Division ultimately decided that Pennsylvania law applied to the crash because New Jersey follows the Third Restatement of Conflicts of Laws, which says to choose the law of the state with the most significant relationship to the parties and the transaction at issue. When the Fogels moved to Pennsylvania, the insured risk clearly also moved to Pennsylvania. Thus, it didn’t matter that the Fogels hadn’t yet reregistered their vehicles and gotten the rewritten policy; both parties were on notice that they were driving in Pennsylvania. Following MacVicar, the Third also ruled that Pennsylvania law should apply because Pennsylvania has a greater governmental interest in the case. Thus, it reversed and remanded the case for summary judgment on the choice of law issue.
As a Philadelphia personal injury lawyer, I’m glad to see the court apply Pennsylvania law to people who were clearly Pennsylvania citizens at the time of their accident. As the Third Circuit noted, Pennsylvania has a strong public policy interest in its stacking law, predicated on the belief that its citizens should be able to use all of the insurance they have purchased. For people like the Fogels, who are now dealing with serious injuries to three of the four remaining family members, this is significant because their financial needs could be very significant. A severe head injury, for example, could leave its victim permanently disabled, requiring retraining in basic life skills. If any of the victims is too badly injured to work, he or she will need some kind of financial help for life. That’s one reason why accident victims come to our personal injury law firm — to pass these steep financial costs on to the irresponsible people who caused them and the insurance companies that have promised to pay them.
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