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Street v. Universal Maritime

May 16, 1997

RICHARD STREET, RESPONDENT,
v.
UNIVERSAL MARITIME, APPELLANT. MICHAEL SERPE, RESPONDENT, V. UNIVERSAL MARITIME, APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Division of Workers' Compensation.

Approved for Publication May 20, 1997.

Before Judges Dreier *fn1, D'Annunzio and Villanueva. The opinion of the court was delivered by D'annunzio, J.A.D.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: D'annunzio

The opinion of the court was delivered by

D'ANNUNZIO, J.A.D.

These are separate appeals by the employer from judgments of the Division of Workers' Compensation. In A-6550-95, the employer appeals from a June 17, 1996 judgment awarding Richard Street 7 1/2 % permanent partial disability. In A-6551-95, the employer appeals from a judgment awarding Michael Serpe 25% permanent partial disability. In both cases, the Division determined that Street and Serpe, career longshoremen who were in their sixties, suffered from chronic obstructive lung disease due to their work-related exposure to noxious substances. We consolidate these appeals for the purpose of this opinion because they present a common legal issue.

The common issue involves an amendment to New Jersey's Workers' Compensation Act. The amendment (sometimes referred to as chapter 74), effective on July 22, 1994, changed the definition of employee contained in N.J.S.A. 34:15-36. It redefined "employee" to eliminate from coverage under the Act

employees eligible under the federal "Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act," 44 Stat. 1424 (33 U.S.C. § 901 et seq.), for benefits payable with respect to accidental death or injury, or occupational disease or infection.

[L. 1994, c. 74, § 1.]

Prior to adoption of the amendment, there was concurrent jurisdiction under the federal and state acts requiring compensation of maritime workers for job-related injuries. See Sun Ship, Inc. v. Pennsylvania, 447 U.S. 715, 100 S. Ct. 2432, 65 L. Ed. 2d 458 (1980). As a result of the amendment, a New Jersey maritime employee is limited to seeking compensation under the federal act. The issue is whether the amendment applies retroactively to bar claims under the New Jersey Act which had been filed before the amendment's effective date.

In the present cases, Street's and Serpe's petitions had been filed in 1992, two years before adoption of the amendment. The compensation Judge in each case denied the employer's motions to dismiss, ruling that the amendment did not apply retroactively. The employer appeals from those rulings, and we now affirm.

The general rule of statutory construction followed by New Jersey courts favors prospective application of statutes. Gibbons v. Gibbons, 86 N.J. 515, 521, 432 A.2d 80 (1981). The purpose behind this rule is to give people fair notice of the laws that they are expected to follow; they cannot be expected to obey laws that have not yet been enacted. See Id. at 522 (citing 2 Sutherland, Statutory Construction, § 41.02 at 247 (4th ed. 1973)); accord Phillips v. Curiale, 128 N.J. 608, 615, 608 A.2d 895 (1992). The presumption in favor of prospective application of statutes is strongest in criminal cases due to the constitutional prohibition against ex post facto application of penal laws that would impose "punishment for an act that was not punishable at the time it was committed, or . . . additional punishment to that then prescribed." Kendall v. Snedeker, 219 N.J. Super. 283, 286-87, 530 A.2d 334 (App. Div. 1987) (quoting Matter of Coruzzi, 95 N.J. 557, 578, 472 A.2d 546, appeal dismissed, 469 U.S. 802, 105 S. Ct. 56, 83 L. Ed. 2d 8 (1984)).

However, this general rule of statutory construction is not to be applied "mechanistically" to every case. Gibbons, (supra) , 86 N.J. at 522. Our Supreme Court has articulated three exceptions to the general rule against retroactive application of a statute: (1) when the express or implied legislative intent required retroactive application because it was "necessary to make the statute workable or to give it the most sensible interpretation"; (2) when the statute is "ameliorative or curative"; or (3) when the "expectations of the parties" warrant retroactive application. Id. at 522-23. Even if one of these exceptions applies, however, a statute should not be given retroactive application if it would result in "manifest inJustice" to one of the parties. Id. at 523.

The employer contends that the first exception, legislative intent, applies. The employer argues that the Legislature expressed its intent that chapter 74 be applied retroactively when it provided that the amendment "shall take effect immediately." L. 1994, c. 74, § 2. We disagree. That language begs the question in this case, which is whether the amendment, though effective immediately, applies to claims filed prior to its effective date. See Bunk v. Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, 144 N.J. 176, 194, 676 A.2d 118 (1996) (noting that a provision in legislation that "it ...


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