On appeal from Judgment of the Division of Workers' Compensation.
Bischoff, King and Polow. The opinion of the court was delivered by Polow, J.A.D.
[184 NJSuper Page 276] The employer, Oak Point Dairies of New Jersey, challenges the method of computation employed by the Division of Workers' Compensation in awarding petitioner benefits for 40% permanent partial disability. The fact that a compensable accident occurred whereby petitioner sustained injuries to that extent is not contested, nor does the employer challenge petitioner's entitlement to disability for 240 weeks. The controversy concerns interpretation of the recently amended schedule of benefits in N.J.S.A. 34:15-12 (L. 1979, c. 283, § 5). Based upon his reading of the amended statutory schedules, the compensation judge concluded "that petitioner is entitled to 240 weeks at $98.40 per week which would total $23,616." According to Oak Point Dairies, as it interprets the legislative intent, petitioner's recovery would be limited to lesser but progressively increasing weekly benefits of $49 a week for the initial 96 weeks, growing in graduated steps to $98.40 a week as of the 211th week. Thus, the employer concludes that proper application of the statutory formula would result in a total award to petitioner of $15,849, almost $8,000 less than the sum fixed by the compensation court.
The desire of the Legislature to increase benefits for more serious injuries while eliminating or reducing payments for those of a minor nature is clearly evidenced by the Joint Legislative Statement accompanying the amendment to N.J.S.A. 34:15-12:
This bill is a revision of New Jersey Workers' Compensation Law and would make available additional dollars for benefits to seriously disabled workers while eliminating, clarifying or tightening awards of compensation based upon minor permanent partial disabilities not related to the employment.
The bill would put significantly more money into the hands of the more seriously injured workers while providing genuine reform and meaningful cost containment for New Jersey employers from unjustified workers' compensation costs that are presently among the highest in the nation.
Among other things not relevant to this controversy, disability benefits were increased from 66 2/3% to 70% of weekly wages at the time of injury and the maximum benefits were increased from 66 2/3% to 75% of the statewide average weekly wages (SAWW) earned by all employees covered by the law. The minimum benefits were increased from $15 a week to 20% of the average weekly wages. The number of weeks for which compensation may be awarded for temporary disability was increased from 300 to 400. Similarly, the amended statute provides for increases in awards for total permanent disability within minimum and maximum limitations as provided therein.
The disability wage and compensation schedule contained in N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(c) provides for a sliding scale of maximum allowable weekly benefits through the first 180 weeks of disability. For example, it provides maximum allowable compensation of $47 a week for the first 90 weeks. If the award exceeds 90 weeks but is no greater than 96 weeks, the new schedule provides for maximum allowable compensation of $49 a week. Thereafter, the schedule provides for an increased maximum of two to three dollars a week for each six-week period of compensation up to 180 weeks. The method of computation in cases in which compensation is allowable for up to 180 weeks is clearly demonstrated and not disputed. For example, the following section leaves little doubt as to the legislative intent applicable for compensation payable up to but for no more than 180 weeks:
Weeks of Allowable Maximum Weekly Compensation
175-180 weeks $49 for the first 96 weeks
then $51 for the next 6 weeks
then $54 for the next 6 weeks
then $56 for the next 6 weeks
then $59 for the next 6 weeks
then $61 for the next 6 weeks
then $63 for the next ...