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Beyer v. Porter-Hayden

Decided: October 6, 1986.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, Garibaldi and Stein. For reversal -- Justice O'Hern. O'Hern, J., dissenting.

Per Curiam

In this case we are called upon to interpret N.J.S.A. 34:15-95.4 (the Act), which provides for a "special adjustment benefit" (SAB) to supplement the basic workers' compensation benefits received by certain employees or dependents whose basic benefits were set "at a rate applicable prior to January 1, 1980." The Judge of Compensation ruled that the survivor of a worker who was injured in 1972, but died in 1982, was not entitled to a SAB. The Appellate Division reversed in a well-reasoned opinion. 212 N.J. Super. 539 (1985).

The Appellate Division calculated respondent's basic benefit under N.J.S.A. 34:15-13(a), which grants death benefits equal to 50% of decedent's last-earned wage. The wage factor is based on decedent's 1972 wage of $75.00 per week, and the percentage factor has been unchanged since 1966. Respondent is thus entitled to a basic death benefit of $37.50 per week -- 50% of $75.00. Because both the wage and percentage factors antedate 1980, the Appellate Division reasoned, this benefit is computed on the basis of "a rate applicable prior to January 1, 1980," and consequently entitles respondent to a SAB.

We affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division for substantially the reasons expressed in its opinion.*fn1 We write only to address an issue raised for the first time before this Court.

Appellant, the Commissioner of Labor and Industry (Commissioner), focuses on the application of L. 1979, c. 283 (the 1979 Amendments), which effected a thorough revision of the schedules for workers' compensation payments. Among other changes, the 1979 Amendments raised the minimum compensation payment guaranteed under N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(a) and -13(j) from $15.00 per week to 20% of the statewide average weekly wage (SAWW). The Commissioner contends that because respondent's basic compensation payment under N.J.S.A. 34:15-13(a) is less than the statutory minimum, respondent is entitled to 20% of the 1982 SAWW. Because this minimum is computed on the basis of the 1982 statewide wage, it is not "a rate applicable prior to 1980." Accordingly, the Commissioner concludes that respondent is not entitled to a SAB under N.J.S.A. 34:15-95.4.*fn2

Unfortunately, neither party to this litigation recognized the effect of section 19 of L. 1979, c. 283.*fn3 This section made the amended compensation rates applicable only to injuries occurring after January 1, 1980. Sections 18-20, reported as a note under N.J.S.A. 34:15-7, state in pertinent part:

The provisions of this amendatory and supplementary act shall apply to accidents and occupational disease exposures which occur on or after January 1, 1980 and shall not be applied retroactively to accidents or occupational diseases occurring prior to January 1, 1980 except to cases where claim is made for an occupational disease characterized by latent manifestation as set forth in R.S. 34:15-34.

It is clear from this section that the amended minimum compensation rate of 20% of the SAWW is not applicable to this case. Respondent's decedent was injured in 1972 and the amendatory act applies only to injuries occurring on or after January 1, 1980.*fn4 The minimum compensation rate applicable to respondent's claim is the rate in effect prior to the 1979 Amendments -- $15.00 per week. Because the $15.00 minimum is "a rate applicable prior to 1980," respondent would be entitled to a SAB even if her basic rate calculated under section 13(a) were less than the minimum weekly benefit.

The special adjustment benefit provided by N.J.S.A. 34:15-95.4 raises a pre-1980 compensation payment to a level that bears the same relationship to the 1980 maximum workers' compensation rate as the compensation payment bore to the maximum compensation rate in effect at the time of award. N.J.S.A. 34:15-105 provides for an annual supplement to the special adjustment benefit that increases an individual's total compensation payments to maintain the relationship with the current year's maximum compensation rate. Read together, the purpose of these two provisions is to adjust the workers' compensation benefits of certain employees and dependents so as to minimize the impact of inflation.

It should be noted that the legislative scheme allows a worker injured prior to 1980 to receive ...

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