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Petrozzino v. Monroe Calculating Machine Co.

New Jersey Supreme Court

Decided: July 8, 1966.


For reversal -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor and Schettino. For affirmance -- Justice Hall. The opinion of the court was delivered by Schettino, J. Hall, J. (dissenting).


[47 NJ Page 578] This is a workmen's compensation appeal. We granted certification (46 N.J. 423 (1966)) on petitioner's application from a judgment of the Appellate Division whose opinion is reported in 90 N.J. Super. 64 (1966). The appeal concerns the following part of N.J.S.A. 34:15-13*fn1 and more particularly the italicized parts:

[47 NJ Page 579]

"Dependents defined. g. The term 'dependents' shall apply to and include any or all of the following who are dependent upon the deceased at the time of accident or the occurrence of occupational disease, or at the time of death, namely: Husband, wife, * * * children * * *.

Dependency shall be conclusively presumed as to the decedent's widow and natural children under 18 years of age who were actually a part of the decedent's household at the time of his death. Every provision of this article applying to one class shall be equally applicable to the other. * * * The foregoing schedule applies only to persons wholly dependent, and in the case of persons only partially dependent, except in the case of the widow and children who were actually a part of the decedent's household at the time of his death, the compensation shall be such proportion of the scheduled percentage as the amounts actually contributed to them by the deceased for their support constituted of his total wages * * *." (Emphasis added)

The issue is: Does the conclusive presumption of dependency of children under this section of the Workmen's Compensation Act apply only where the decedent parent is a male employee and not where as here the employee was a female?

The facts are as follows: On October 3, 1961 the petitioner's wife, Madeline Petrozzino, died from work-connected causes, survived by her husband, the petitioner, and her minor son, Charles, age 3. There was no dispute that the child was her child, under 18 years of age and actually part of his mother's household at the time of her death.

The petitioner contends that his child is within the precise class set forth in the language of the statute, that dependency of the child on the mother is conclusively presumed as to the infant son, that therefore the child is entitled to the statutory benefits. The Compensation Division, holding that the presumption did not apply to children of working mothers, denied benefits to the child. The County Court reversed, holding the presumption operated in favor of children regardless of whether the decedent was a working father or mother. The Appellate Division reversed the County Court and held that the word "widow" restricts the word "decedent's" to mean only a male decedent and that therefore the statute does not operate to create a conclusive presumption of dependency in favor of a child of a working mother.

[47 NJ Page 580]

We have recently reiterated that in construing the Workmen's Compensation Act it is axiomatic that a liberal construction be given. Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 604 (1965). And more particularly where, as here, the dependency section must be interpreted, a construction must accomplish the statutory purposes of making the cost of work-connected injuries part of the cost of the employer's product, thus relieving society as a whole of the burden of supporting the dependents of those whose death is caused by work-connected injuries. Stellmah v. Hunterdon Cooperative G.L.F. Service, Inc., 47 N.J. 163, 169-170 (1966).

The original Workmen's Compensation Act was enacted in L. 1911, c. 95, p. 134, and contained no dependency provision analogous to section 13. However, in L. 1913, c. 174, p. 302 the act was amended to provide:

"The term 'dependents' shall apply to and include any or all of the following who are dependent upon the deceased at the time of accident or death, namely: husband, wife, * * * children, * * *. * * * provided, however, that dependency shall be presumed as to a widow who was living with her husband at the time of his decease, and children under the age of eighteen years; * * *."

Then by L. 1919, c. 93, p. 206, the word "conclusively" was added to establish the presumption as irrebuttable and not dependent upon a showing of actual contribution to the support of the dependent. Bower v. Metal Compounds Corp., 121 N.J.L. 421, 3 A. 2 d 164 (Sup. Ct. 1938), affirmed 122 N.J.L. 380, 5 A. 2 d 699 (E. & A. 1939); Gliewe v. Mulberry Metal Stamping Works, Inc., 18 N.J. Misc. 461, 14 A. 2 d 58 (C.P.), affirmed 125 N.J.L. 555 (Sup. Ct. 1940).

In L. 1921, c. 85, p. 140 the provision was amended to read substantially as it presently exists with further amendments merely changing the age limits of the children entitled to the presumption and including death by occupational disease among other enumerated causes of death. See, L. 1923, c. 49, p. 106, as amended by L. 1945, c. 74, p. 387.

Respondent initially contends that the legislative history of the dependency provision requires us to interpret the dependency

[47 NJ Page 581]

provision as excluding children of working mothers from the class of dependent children covered by the presumption. Respondent argues that as working mothers were not common in the period 1910-1920, the Legislature by adding "conclusively" to the presumption in 1919 used "decedent's widow and natural children," L. 1919, c. 93, p. 206, to replace the 1913 statutory language "presumed as to a widow who was living with her husband at the time of his decease, and children," intending thereby to narrow the class of persons to be benefited by the new formula. Respondent seeks to support this theory by pointing to the increase of women in the work force during the First World War years and contending that the Legislature recognized the problem of children of working mothers as dependents and specifically used the conjunctive "and" to exclude them from the benefit of the stronger presumption.

We cannot agree with the basis of respondent's argument. We note that in 1910 New Jersey had a work force of 1,074,360; of which 239,565 were women and 37,653 of these were married. In 1920 the work force in New Jersey totaled 1,310,653; 295,990 women and 50,451 of these were married women. United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census (1910) and (1920). Thus in both 1910 and 1920 the percentages of working women were not only substantial but in fact were similar. These figures would indicate that the Legislature would provide for a similar treatment of the problem had the women's working force been the critical factor considered. See 2 Sutherland, Statutory Construction (3 d Horack ed. 1943), §§ 4105 and 5003.

Respondent also contends that the statute must be read to effectuate the legislative intent as expressed by the plain meaning of the words as usually and commonly accepted. Thus, the phrase "decedent's widow and children" must be read to exclude children of working mothers for the term "decedent's" modifies "widow and children" and must be taken to refer to the masculine gender only for the term "widow" clearly refers to the female only and moreover the

[47 NJ Page 582]

word "and" must be read in the conjunctive. We disagree. N.J.S.A. 1:1-2 provides in part:

"Unless it be otherwise expressly provided or there is something in the subject or context repugnant to such construction, the following words and phrases, when used in any statute and in the Revised Statutes, shall have the meaning herein given to them.

Number; gender. Whenever, in describing or referring to any person, party, matter or thing, any word importing the * * * masculine gender is used, the same shall be understood to include and to apply to * * * females as well as males, * * *."*fn2

The word "his" in "his death" in N.J.S.A. 34:15-13(g) should be deemed to read "his or her." The [47 NJ Page 583] critical phrase in the statute accordingly would read this way: "[T]he decedent's widow and natural children under 18 years of age who were actually a part of the decedent's household at the time of his [his or her] death." With the interpolation required by N.J.S.A. 1:1-2, it becomes evident that "his or her" modifies decedent and thus indicates that the decedent may be either the father or mother of the child. We are satisfied that when the Legislature decided there should be paid to a surviving child who is a member of the decedent's household the benefits which would be payable in the case of total dependency whether or not the dependency was total in fact, the Legislature took into account that a child who loses a parent suffers a loss above and beyond the pecuniary support which the parent furnished, and that the compensation is payable as if the dependency were total in order to compensate the child for that additional incalculable loss. The same considerations apply whether the parent who died is the mother or the father of the child and hence we

[47 NJ Page 584]

think it in keeping with the probable legislative intent to deem the child who is a member of the mother's household a total dependent of the mother.

Respondent also claims a windfall would be granted to the children of working mothers if the presumption applies for, if the father dies in a compensable accident within the purview of the Workmen's Compensation Act, the child here would receive two total dependency awards.*fn3 We suggest a counterbalancing situation where, shortly after the mother's death, the father dies in a noncompensable status leaving no assets. This child would be left with no support and would become a burden on society. That this and analogous situations are what the act's dependency provision is aimed at avoiding, is clear.

We hold that a child of a working mother, whose death is otherwise compensable under the act, is entitled to be "conclusively presumed" a dependent within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 34:15-13(g).

Reverse and remand.

HALL, J. (dissenting). The issue in this case is not whether a child of an employed mother is entitled to any

[47 NJ Page 585]

compensation upon her work-connected death, but rather whether the Legislature has provided that such a child shall be conclusively presumed to be wholly financially dependent on the mother, irrespective of the actual fact, and thus shall automatically receive maximum benefits. When the history of N.J.S.A. 34:15-13g is carefully studied (L. 1911, c. 95, p. 139, § 12; L. 1913, c. 174, p. 305, § 2; L. 1919, c. 93, p. 205, § 2), it seems indisputable to me that N.J.S.A. 1:1-2 has no proper application, that the presumption is confined to the case of death of the working father, and that the Appellate Division was certainly right in saying that "[t]o hold otherwise would be to give a tortured interpretation to words which are otherwise clear and unequivocal." 90 N.J. Super., at p. 67. Even though a court feels a result to be socially desirable, it should not fail to accord a statute its plain meaning. Amendment is a legislative and not a judicial function. As the majority opinion points out in footnote 1, the Legislature recently did amend N.J.S.A. 34:15-13g to cover the situation here involved. But the amendment, of course, is prospective in operation and by its specific terms does not become effective until March 1, 1967. L. 1966, c. 126, §§ 2 and 19.

I would affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division.

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