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Fedi v. Ryan

Decided: July 28, 1937.


On certiorari.

For the prosecutor, James J. Carroll (Clarence B. Tippett, of counsel).

For the respondent, Charles A. Rooney.

Before Justices Bodine, Heher and Perskie.


The opinion of the court was delivered by

HEHER, J. On July 24th, 1932, Nicola Armenti was killed by an accident arising out of and in the course of his employment; and the question for decision is whether his dependent niece "by marriage" is embraced within the class entitled to compensation under the provisions of paragraph

12 (g), section 2, of the Workmen's Compensation act of 1911, as amended by chapter 135 of the laws of 1928. Pamph. L. 1911, pp. 134, 139; Pamph. L. 1928, pp. 281, 286. The infant respondent is the daughter of a sister of the deceased's wife. It is stipulated that at the time of the employe's death, she was approximately seven years of age, and was, and for five years prior thereto had been, a member of his family, actually dependent upon him.

The primary question at issue is the legislative intention, as expressed in the statute. The reason and spirit of the act, or, in other words, the apparent legislative intent evinced by the language employed, considered in relation to the subject of the legislation, prevail over its letter. And the words used to declare the legislative purpose, if of common use, are to be taken in their natural, plain, obvious and ordinary signification, unless modified by the context. But a word having a technical significance as well is given that sense where the nature of the subject indicates, or the context suggests, that it has been so used. The general object of a particular act is always to be looked to in aid of a correct comprehension of its intention. The sense in which the words were intended to be used, as gleaned from the context, provides the key to the understanding of the statute; and their ordinary meaning may be enlarged, restricted or qualified to give effect to the intention so disclosed. Hackensack Trust Co. v. Hackensack, 116 N.J.L. 343; Oakland v. Board of Conservation and Development, 98 Id. 806; State, Gregory et al. v. Mayor and Aldermen of Jersey City, 36 Id. 166; Lewis' Sutherland Statutory Construction (2 d ed.), ยงยง 347, 358, 376, 394. Yet plain and unambiguous words not rendered dubious by the context cannot be controlled by judicial construction. Public Service Co-ordinated Transport v. State Board of Tax Appeals, 115 Id. 97.

In their primary technical sense, the words "nephews" and "nieces" import a consanguineous relationship. Bouvier's Law Dictionary (Rawle's 3 d ed.) defines "niece" as the "daughter of a brother or sister. Ambl. 514, 1 Jac. 207." It is so defined in Black's Law Dictionary. According to the civil law, a nephew or niece is in the third degree of consanguinity;

at the common law, in the second degree. 2 Bl. Com. 206. The rule of the civil law seems to prevail in this country. 2 Hill R.P. 194.

And by modern usage, the word "niece" means "the daughter * * * of a brother or sister." Goddard v. Amory, 147 Mass. 71, 74; 16 N.E. Rep. 725. In its primary and ordinary legal usage, it refers to the immediate descendants of one's brothers and sisters, to the exclusion of grandnephews and grandnieces or more remote descendants. Cromer v. Pinckney, 3 Barb. Ch. 466, 475. It is only by courtesy that the children of a husband's or wife's brothers and sisters are called "nephews" and "nieces," just as it is in relation to a husband's or wife's father and mother. Appeal of Green, 42 Pa. 25, 30. See, also, In re Root's Estate, 187 Id. 118; 40 A. 818; Lewis v. Fisher, 2 Yeates (Pa.) 196, 199; State v. Tucker, 174 Ind. 715; 93 N.E. Rep. 3. In the usual legal sense, these terms connote the degree of a consanguineous relationship. Capps v. State, 87 Fla. 100 So. Rep. 172. In Grieves v. Rawley, 10 Hare 63, 64; 44 Eng. Ch. 61; 68 Reprint 840, Vice-Chancellor Turner, construing a decree, ruled that "the description of nephews and nieces includes the child of a brother or sister of the half blood." But that, too, is a relation of consanguinity; and the vice-chancellor observed that "in the description of nephews and nieces there is not, I think, any distinction generally made between children of whole or half brothers and sisters. The relation of uncle and nephew or niece is of course founded on and derived from the relation between the uncle and the parent of the nephew or niece, but the first mentioned relation is so generally recognized and understood that, in ...

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