On appeal from Bergen County Court, Law Division.
For reversal -- Chief Justice Vanderbilt, and Justices Heher, Burling, Jacobs and Weintraub. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Burling, J.
This appeal stems from a judgment of the Bergen County Court which we have certified prior to a review by the Superior Court, Appellate Division. Within its narrowest confines the case presents a question of fraud in a limited sense, i.e., withholding information concerning a prior marriage of the decedent in a proceeding to secure death benefits under the Workmen's Compensation Law. We must, however, take a broader view of the proceeding in order to impel a final determination of the primal meritorious question, namely, whether one claim can support two awards.
Various aspects of the controversy have been in litigation for 6 1/2 years. The observation is hardly a tribute to our collective endeavor to reach substantial justice through an immediate channel. Our rules provide ample opportunity for appellate courts to exercise a superintending control over litigation which has an occasional tendency to spread itself thin over an undue length of time and provokes an unnecessary usurpation of judicial manpower with its accompanying expense to litigants. Prompt penetrating adjudication by removing the feigned veils requires the cooperation of litigants and of hearers at the trial level. Satisfaction may be taken in the fact that similar cumbersome strategic adjective situations as exist in this case are the rare exception rather than the rule.
Wallace Minter, an employee of respondent Bendix Aviation Corporation, was killed in 1951. There is no dispute that the accident causing his death arose out of and in the course of his employment.
Several months later his alleged widow, Minnie Minter, filed a claim for dependency death benefits with the Workmen's Compensation Division. Bendix, in answer, denied that Minnie was Wallace's legal wife. An award was made which Bendix later conceded was justified upon the evidence before the Compensation Division, see Minter v. Bendix Aviation Corp., 26 N.J. Super. 268, 274 (App. Div. 1953), although at the time of the hearing it had some reason to believe that Minnie was not the decedent's lawful wife. Bendix did not seek a postponement of the agency hearing to fully investigate and develop this issue and no appeal was taken from the award.
After Minnie obtained her award (April, 1952) Bendix applied to the Division for a new trial and for a stay of the judgment on the basis of newly discovered evidence. This was denied by the Division which was in turn affirmed by the Bergen County Court and the Superior Court, Appellate Division, Minter v. Bendix Aviation Corp., 26 N.J. Super. 268 (1953). The latter decision was rendered on June 12, 1953, and the court noted that there was indeed another contender (Marilyn) for the award who had already filed her claim with the Compensation Division. (Marilyn's claim was filed in February, 1953. Bendix then sought a remand of the case which it had appealed to the Appellate Division in view of Marilyn's claim but this was denied and the noted decision was thereafter rendered.)
Bendix immediately filed an action of interpleader with the Superior Court, Chancery Division. The Chancery Division decided to withhold action on the interpleader pending the outcome of Marilyn's claim with the Compensation Division. A dismissal of the claim would moot the interpleader.
The hearing on Marilyn's claim took place on November 24, 1953. Bendix moved to dismiss her petition because of the previous award to Minnie, arguing that the Deputy Director lacked jurisdiction to proceed. (It would seem that at this point Bendix' motion should have included an application to open the judgment awarded to Minnie and
thereby a comprehensive hearing could have been had with all interested parties participating, R.S. 34:15-58.) Bendix expressed concern over the possibility of a double liability but the motion was denied by the Deputy Director who thought that Marilyn was entitled to be heard. She obtained an award on December 23, 1953, the Deputy Director concluding:
"That the said dependents, Marilyn Sanderson Minter, as widow, and Wallace Edward Minter, the infant child, were the legal and total dependents of the decedent at the time of his accidental death on August 4, 1951, within the meaning of the provisions of R.S. 34:15-13."
It is to be noted that Minnie was not a party and did not participate in this proceeding nor did the Division take any steps to reopen her case (R.S. 15:34-58) after the award to Marilyn, although the Deputy Director recognized the inequity of "a double award arising out of one accident." Following Marilyn's award the Chancery Division dismissed the interpleader action ...