Timing is Everything: Statute of Limitations Waits for No One in Uninsured Motorist Claims

The recent decision by the Superior Court of New Jersey in Malik v. NJM reminds insurers that timing really is everything. The Court held that failing to identify and sue a tortfeasor in an automobile liability case within the two-year statute of limitations period bars the claimant from seeking UM (uninsured motorist) benefits under the New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Company (NJM) policy.

On July 18, 2016, Masood Malik was involved in a car accident with another vehicle that fled from the scene. A few days later, Malik and his son recognized the same vehicle and took a photograph of the license plate. Malik also visited a gas station and took photographs of CCTV footage depicting the accident.  Malik reportedly provided these photographs to his attorney.   By September 2016, Malik retained counsel and his attorney identified the owner of the vehicle as Alice Crawford and Progressive Insurance Company (Progressive) as the insurer. On October 3, 2016, Malik’s attorney sent a claim letter to Progressive, alleging personal injuries resulting from Crawford’s negligence.

In August 2017, Progressive responded to the claim letter from Malik’s attorney and requested additional information. Malik subsequently provided video footage of the accident to Progressive. However, in November 2017 Progressive denied Malik’s claim citing to a “lack of cooperation from its insured,” Crawford. In March 2018, Malik requested that his insurer, NJM, open a UM claim. A UM claim is a first party claim against one’s own auto insurer typically pursued when the other driver in the accident either does not have insurance or is unidentified in order to compensate the plaintiff for the injuries sustained.  Malik provided to NJM a copy of the police accident report, which indicated the accident was a hit-and-run accident and did not identify Crawford as an owner or operator of the phantom vehicle.  Malik also provided a copy of Progressive’s denial letter to NJM, which for some unknown reason did not identify Crawford by name or provide her addresss.    NJM responded to the demand.  NJM reminded Malik of the two-year statute of limitations and requested that he provide additional information, including video footage related to the accident. Malik failed to do so within the applicable time period. In August 2018, Malik filed suit against NJM seeking UM benefits. During Malik’s deposition in August 2019,  NJM learned for the first time of the photographs, video footage and that the fact that Crawford had been identified as the tortfeasor.  Crawford later passed away.   NJM later obtained a statement from Crawford’s daughter Desiree attesting she was the operator of the vehicle involved in the accident.   NJM moved for summary judgment  asserting the Malik failed to sue the tortfeasor within two years, and thus prejudiced NJM’s subrogation rights against Crawford and her daughter

The Superior Court of New Jersey upheld the summary judgment and cited Malik’s untimely actions. First, Malik neglected to initiate a lawsuit within the two-year statute of limitations even though he had identified Crawford as a tortfeasor by September 2016. This delay meant NJM lost its subrogation rights. Second, in March 2018, Malik requested that NJM file a UM claim, prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations. Malik failed to provide the requested video footage of the accident. Thus, Malik was precluded him from obtaining UM benefits.

Malik’s case demonstrates the importance of timely action with insurance claims. Failure to act within statutory deadlines, in this case two years, and provide complete information and evidence to insurers, such as video footage, can result in the forfeiture of potential benefits or legal rights. If Malik had sued Crawford and Jane Does within the two years limitations period,   or  provided the video footage  and photographs of Crawford’s vehicle to NJM when it initially demanded his outcome may have been much different.  

Need more insights on the statute of limitations in UM claims or legal assistance in this area? Contact Frank Caruso at fcaruso@hoaglandlongo.com or call us at 732-545-4717.