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Parkinson v. J. & S. Tool Co.

Decided: January 2, 1974.


For reversal -- Acting Chief Justice Jacobs and Justices Hall, Sullivan, and Pashman. For affirmance -- Justice Clifford. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pashman, J. Clifford, J. (dissenting). Hall, J., concurs in the result.


This is an appeal by Ruth Parkinson from a judgment of the Appellate Division which affirmed a denial of dependency benefits by the Judge of Compensation. Appellant, though not legally married, was living as husband and wife with decedent Richard Parkinson, who, it is conceded, died from an accident arising out of and in the course of his employment. N.J.S.A. 34:15-7. We granted certification. 63 N.J. 328 (1973).

The sole issue is whether claimant is a "dependent" within the terms of N.J.S.A. 34:15-13(f) according to guidelines we enunciated in Dawson v. Hatfield Wire & Cable Co., 59 N.J. 190 (1971).

Ruth and Richard Parkinson, lifelong Roman Catholics, were legally married before a Roman Catholic priest in 1927. Two children were born of this marriage which terminated in 1939 when Ruth obtained a divorce decree in the New Jersey courts. Richard thereupon left the state but returned in 1950 to resume life with Ruth and their children. Prior to doing so, and as a step toward remarriage, the couple visited the pastor of their local church, informed him of the divorce and requested that he remarry them. Consent to remarriage was withheld. The priest explained that they were "already married in the eyes of God." The couple accepted the priest's explanation, assumed they were married and resumed cohabitation. No civil ceremony followed.

Appellant testified that she understood the nature of her divorced status under the law, that she was no longer legally married. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, however, a religious ceremony lasts until death; only ecclesiastical authority can dissolve or annul the marriage. Monsignor Smith, an ecclesiastical attorney and expert on canon law, testified that the advice offered by the pastor, since deceased, would be the church's teaching as regards marriage. People reconciled after a divorce and returning to the same authority which married them initially is such an uncommon occurrence that most priests, even those more steeped in canon and civil law, are unqualified to grapple with its legal disposition. Since

there is no canon covering these facts, even when proper advice is afforded, no new marriage occurs. On cross-examination, the Monsignor offered what would be his advice to such a couple: a "renewal of consent," i.e., an expression of matrimonial consent by recalling their original marriage vows, coupled with obtaining a new marriage license. In the eyes of the church, it is not a new marriage, but merely a repetition of what already has occurred. It would suffice however for the civil authorities.

The Judge of Compensation found, however, that while the couple had remained married in the eyes of God, and recognized as a marital entity by the public, the civil authority, by virtue of the divorce, did not accept the remarriage. Accordingly, under strict statutory law, Ruth Parkinson did not qualify as a dependent for workmen's compensation benefits. The Appellate Division agreed and rejected appellant's contention that she qualifies as a de facto wife under Dawson, supra. For reasons hereinafter stated, we reverse, and remand to the Division of Workmen's Compensation for an award of death benefits.

The relevant Workmen's Compensation statute, N.J.S.A. 34:15-13(f) provides in part:

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: . . . wife . . .*fn1

Appellant concedes that she is not a lawful de jure widow, but respectfully urges that we accept her claim as a de facto widow, and therefore should be entitled to benefits under the reasoning we have set forth in Dawson. In that case, Mamie Dawson, legally married to decedent Charles Dawson in 1949, brought a dependency claim following his fatal work-connected injury. At the Compensation hearing, employer challenged Mamie's rights to dependency benefits, attacked her marriage as meretricious, and offered that decedent had previously been married in 1942, had fathered two children and had never secured a divorce. Dependency benefits were denied. The lower courts reasoned that a knowingly meretricious relationship is generally sufficient to defeat recovery. Justice Mountain, for the majority, fashioned an equitable result and reversed. He pointed out that the claimant entered her relationship in complete good faith, with no suspicion, let alone knowledge, of decedent's prior marriage. The couple had lived together in an open and unchallenged relationship as man and wife until decedent's death. The evidence was uncontradicted that Mamie Dawson had been dependent on decedent. It was only after the latter's death that employer challenged this relationship, and then only to be relieved of its dollar liability. We there concluded that the terms "wife" and "widow" as used in the statute include de facto widows where good faith coalesces with ". . . a de facto relationship of man and wife continuing unbroken over an extended period of years having had its genesis in a ceremonial marriage . . ." 59 N.J. 196.

The Appellate Division refused to apply the Dawson rationale because Ruth and Richard Parkinson lacked the "ceremonial" requisite. Justice Mountain stated in Dawson:

We disagree. This position misreads both the underlying rationale of the marriage ceremony and the equitable ...

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