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Panzino v. Continental Can Co.

Decided: September 29, 1976.


For reversal -- Chief Justice Hughes, Justices Mountain, Sullivan, Pashman and Clifford and Judge Conford. For affirmance -- Justice Schreiber. The opinion of the court was delivered by Mountain, J. Schreiber, J. (dissenting).


Petitioner filed a claim for occupational hearing loss six years after retiring from his employment with respondent corporation. As the Workmen's Compensation Act was then written, this time span exceeded the permissible period within which such a claim was required to be filed. Two months before his claim was heard, however, a statutory amendment abrogated the time limitation. The issue before us is whether the amendment applies and thus saves petitioner's claim.

It was stipulated that petitioner, Louis Panzino, retired from respondent's employ on March 31, 1966; that during the period of his employment he had been exposed to loud noise and had suffered a 54% binaural loss. It was not until the late summer of 1972, more than six years after the employment

terminated, that Panzino discovered that his hearing loss was work-related. He filed his claim September 14, 1972. At that time the relevant limitations statute, N.J.S.A. 34:15-34, provided that claims for compensable occupational disability must be filed within two years of the employee's last exposure during the course of employment, or within one year of discovery, whichever was longer; and that furthermore a claim would be "forever barred" unless presented within five years from the date of last exposure. An amendment to this statute,*fn1 effective July 3, 1974, eliminated all time limitation requirements except "that where a claimant knew the nature of the disability and its relation to the employment," the petition must be filed "within 2 years after the date on which the claimant first had such knowledge . . ." This claimant's petition was filed within a month of his discovery that his hearing impairment was work-related.

On September 12, 1974, the Judge of Compensation ruled that Panzino was entitled to prevail, holding that he came within the favor of the statutory amendment. An award was entered in the sum of $4,320. On appeal the Appellate Division reversed. 135 N.J. Super. 206 (1975). It held that the amendment should be given only prospective application and that to give it retrospective effect would be to impair respondent's vested right to impose the bar of the earlier time limitation. This Court granted certification. 68 N.J. 487 (1975).

We first consider whether or not the amendatory enactment was intended to have retrospective operation. The Sponsor's Statement attached to the bill as introduced in the Assembly read as follows:

Occupational diseases are often of such an insidious nature that they do not become evident until years after exposure to the cause thereof. This bill memorializes this fact by abrogating the burdensome and

arbitrary time restrictions presently in effect within which a claim for compensation must be filed, and which in fact may easily lapse before even the symptoms of disease are evident. As here prescribed, a claim would be permitted within 2 years after the claimant had actual knowledge of the nature of the disability and its relation to the employment.

Of the various materials that may reveal legislative intent, one of the most instructive is a statement by the sponsor of the act.

[T]he expressions of the sponsor of the bill normally reveal a legislative intent more significant than that revealed by those of a more casual legislative adherent. In this context, the significant legislative intent may well be the actual intent of the former. [ Dickerson, The Interpretation and Application of Statutes 73 (1975)]

In the course of deliberations on a bill, legislators look to its sponsor as well as to the representatives of the committee having charge of it, as one who is expected to be particularly well informed about its purpose, meaning, and intended effect. In recognition of this reality of legislative practice, courts give consideration to statements made by a bill's sponsor on grounds similar to those relied on to support the use of statements made by the committeeman in charge of the bill. [2A Sutherland, Statutes and Statutory Construction ยง 48.15, at 221-22 (4th ed. 1973)]

The sponsor's statement here rather clearly identifies the mischief sought to be corrected. Existing time restrictions upon initiating claims have been found to be "burdensome" and "arbitrary." Experience has revealed that by their very nature occupational diseases often do not become manifest until years after exposure. This Court's decision in Kane v. Durotest Corp., 37 N.J. 552 (1962), identified the rigors of a statutory time limit. There the petitioner's decedent had contracted beryllium poisoning from which she ultimately died. She did not, however, become aware of the existence of the disease until seven and one-half years after leaving respondent's employ. Because this exceeded the five-year term within which such a claim was required to be filed, her suit was barred. The result seemed then, and seems now, to have been unjust. There we said,

If the five-year limitation for prosecution of the compensation action occasionally operates harshly and lengthening of the period is considered desirable, the appeal for such change must be to the Legislature. [37 N.J. at 556]

The relief afforded by the new amendment can be seen as a legislative response to such an appeal, signifying an intent that claims for occupational disease shall be honored if filed within two years of discovery.

Further, it has long been axiomatic that the Workmen's Compensation Act is to be liberally construed. Torres v. Trenton Times Newspaper, 64 N.J. 458, 461 (1974); Petrozzino v. Monroe Calculating Machine Co., Inc., 47 N.J. 577, 580 (1966); Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 604 (1965). Bearing this in mind, being aware of the mischief sought to be remedied and always conscious of the beneficent purposes of this important social legislation, we perceive no reason why the Legislature would have wished to place any greater limitation upon the reach of the statute than can sensibly be drawn from its language. Accordingly we conclude that the enactment should be read to cover any claimant who files a petition within two years of the date on which he learns the nature of his disability and its relation to his employment.

Of course, to read the statute in this way sanctions petitioner's claim, unless, as so read, the enactment is unconstitutional. The claim was filed within a month of Panzino's discovery that his affliction -- of which he had long been conscious -- was work-related. Respondent argues that our giving the amendment this interpretation results in an unconstitutional deprivation of its "vested right" to take advantage of the statutory time limits in effect when the claim was filed. According to this argument, for which respondent finds support in this Court's decision in State v. Standard Oil Co., 5 N.J. 281 (1950), aff'd sub nom. Standard Oil Co. v. State of New Jersey, 341 U.S. 428, 71 S. Ct. 822, 95 L. Ed. 1078 (1951), respondent could not constitutionally be deprived of the right to assert the

bar of the time limitations set forth in the statute in effect when petitioner filed his claim. The filing in fact took place on September 14, 1972, by which date the applicable period had already expired. Stated somewhat differently, under this rationale respondent's defense may be characterized as the assertion of a vested right which could not be lost either by legislative or judicial intervention without impairing due process guarantees. Therefore, respondent contends, the fact that the statute was amended after the claim was filed, but before hearing, could have no effect upon its vested right to plead the statute; the passage of time had extinguished the remedy and petitioner's right of action died with it.

A constitutional challenge to state legislation on the ground that it impairs or destroys a vested right generally implicates the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Rothman v. Rothman, 65 N.J. 219, 225 (1974). The Supreme Court of the United States considered such a challenge in Chase Securities Corporation v. Donaldson, 325 U.S. 304, 65 S. Ct. 1137, 89 L. Ed. 1628 (1945). There a statute of the State of Minnesota had the effect of lifting the bar of the statute of limitations in a pending litigation. Appellant contended that to permit the new enactment to affect its rights would amount to taking its property without due process of law. In an ...

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