On appeal from the Division of Workers' Compensation.
Pressler, Baime and Ashbey. The opinion of the court was delivered by Ashbey, J.A.D.
Appellant Bethlehem Steel Corporation (Bethlehem) appeals from an order of the Director of the Division of Workers' Compensation which requires Bethlehem to bear the entire burden of paying special adjustment benefits to the estate of Patrick Walsh under N.J.S.A. 34:15-95.4.
The material facts on this appeal are not in dispute. Bethlehem is a self-insurer for workers' compensation payments. Patrick Walsh was declared totally disabled by reason of injuries sustained on or before January 1, 1945 as a result of his work with Bethlehem. Were it not for the supplemental adjustment benefits provided by N.J.S.A. 34:15-95.4, Walsh's claim would have been limited to $20 a week for 450 weeks for which Bethlehem concedes it is responsible. It denies responsibility, however, for the amount of the supplemental adjustment over the same period of time which the Director of the Division ordered Bethlehem to pay.
Bethlehem's appeal presents a novel question of statutory interpretation. N.J.S.A. 34:15-95.4 states in pertinent part:
Payments of the adjustment shall be made from the fund created under R.S. 34:15-94 [Second Injury Fund] in the manner hereinafter provided. The Commissioner of Labor and Industry shall make payments from the fund directly to the persons who are now receiving benefits under R.S. 34:15-95 and to their dependents. . . . In the case of persons who are entitled to compensation under R.S. 34:15-12(b) [Walsh] or R.S. 34:15-13, the insurance carrier or self-insured employer in the second and subsequent fiscal years after enactment shall increase the weekly compensation payments to include the weekly adjustment and shall credit the payments against the assessments payable by the insurance
carrier or self-insurer under R.S. 34:15-94. The insurance carrier or self-insurer claiming such credit shall submit vouchers upon forms prescribed by the Commissioner of Labor and Industry identifying each case and indicating the weekly benefit adjustment applicable thereto.
Bethlehem's workers' compensation claims originate primarily under federal legislation and Bethlehem has historically made little or no payment to the Second Injury Fund (Fund). If obliged to advance the special benefit payments due on the Walsh claim, therefore, Bethlehem says it will never get the Fund credit foreseen in the statute. In words of Bethlehem,
The precise issue to be considered is who is responsible for the special supplemental benefits to be paid to a totally disabled claimant where the rate of compensation applicable to the respondent is only $20.00 per week and the current rate [to claimants] is $192.39 per week, in an instance in which the respondent's liability to the Second Injury Fund is considerably less than the amounts to which the petitioner has been adjudged entitled to receive.
In support of its position, Bethlehem urges that the Legislature intended the Fund to be primarily responsible for all special benefit payments, and that requiring self-insured employers to advance payments was only a matter of bookkeeping convenience. The Fund asserts the contrary.
The special adjustment benefit was created by L. 1980, c. 83, codified at N.J.S.A. 34:15-95.4, as part of a package of amendments to the workers' compensation laws. The primary legislative purpose of these various revisions was to increase benefits to more seriously injured workers deemed to be receiving inadequate compensation under prior law. Ries v. Harry Kane, Inc., 195 N.J. Super. 185, 196-197 (App.Div.1983). The benefits provided by this entire package of legislation were not, however, intended to increase the overall cost of the workers' compensation system.*fn1 Although there is ...