Justices Decide Illegal Residents Can Get Benefits

Jeffrey Gold, AP, May 19, 2006

NEWARK, N.J.—New Jersey’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday that illegal immigrants injured by uninsured drivers can have medical costs and other benefits covered by a fund whose money comes from insurance fees.

“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 passenger when hurt in 2001, five months after he came to live with relatives in Bradley Beach, Monmouth County.

The decision, which reversed two lower-court rulings, 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 22 and living at the Shore, sought compensation from the Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund, but a trial judge and an appellate panel found he did not satisfy its residency requirement.

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The Supreme Court disagreed, asserting that the meaning of resident under New Jersey law 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 court sent the case back to the trial judge. Caballero’s lawyer said they would seek a jury trial on how much benefits he could collect.

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