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Williams v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

January 14, 2003

JOHN J. WILLIAMS, PETITIONER-RESPONDENT,
v.
THE PORT AUTHORITY OF NEW YORK AND NEW JERSEY, RESPONDENT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 345 N.J. Super. 549 (2001).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

The is sue in this appeal is whether the New Jersey Division of Workers' Compensation properly exercised subject- matter jurisdiction over a claim by a Port Authority employee alleging occupational pulmonary disease based on four months of exposure to certain cleaning agents and other chemicals in New Jersey that predated twenty-one years of similar exposure in New York.

John Williams was employed by the Port Authority from 1969 until the time of his retirement in 1997. For the most part during the course of his employment with the Port Authority, Williams worked in New York, where he also resided. Throughout the entire course of his employment with the Port Authority, including four months in 1973 during which he worked on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, Williams used and was exposed to various cleaning agents, fumes, and other strong chemicals from which he ultimately claimed that he sustained pulmonary disease. Williams first sought medical treatment for his pulmonary problems in 1993 - some twenty years after his exposure in New Jersey. Williams retired from his position with Port Authority in 1997, based on his age.

In May 1997, Williams filed an occupational workers' compensation claim with the Division of Workers' Compensation (Division) alleging, among other conditions, pulmonary disability related to his work exposure between September 1969 and May 1997. Although the Port Authority raised the defense of lack of subject-matter jurisdiction in its answer, the Judge of Compensation reserved decision on the jurisdictional issue until the conclusion of the trial. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge found that the Division should exercise jurisdiction and awarded Williams a partial permanent disability of twenty percent for chronic bronchitis. The Port Authority appealed, contending that the Division should not have exercised extraterritorial jurisdiction.

In a published opinion, a divided panel of the Appellate Division affirmed, concluding that Williams had sustained an injury in New Jersey during the four months of exposure in this State. In determining whether Williams' four- month employment exposure in New Jersey was sufficient to permit the Division to exercise jurisdiction, the panel determined that New Jersey's decisional law regarding apportionment of occupational disease disability among successive employers and case law related to the computation of the statute of limitations in occupational disease cases should be followed, citing Bond v. Rose Ribbon & Carbon Mfg. Co. , and Earl v. Johnson and Johnson. The majority concluded that Williams' exposure to the cleaning agents and other chemicals in New Jersey was not a casual, brief or insubstantial period of exposure. The majority further concluded that because it could not be determined at what point during the twenty-one year exposure the pulmonary disease process commenced, it should be deemed to have commenced simultaneously with the beginning of the exposure in New Jersey.

The dissenting memb er of the panel concluded that the majority's reliance on Bond and Earl was misplaced, asserting that the issue before the court was one of jurisdiction and not one involving the statute of limitations, liability for exposure, or waiver of workers' compensation benefits. Judge Wefing concluded that Williams' four months of work in New Jersey, which predated the termination of his last exposure by more than twenty-one years, were insufficient to warrant New Jersey exercising jurisdiction.

The appeal is before the Supreme Court as a matter of right, based on the dissent in the Appellate Division.

HELD: Petitioner's exposure to allegedly harmful chemicals during four months of his employment in New Jersey, while employed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, cannot satisfy the injury requirement for the exercise by the New Jersey Division of Workers' Compensation of extraterritorial jurisdiction.

1. Although the Court held in Boyle v. G.&K. Trucking Co., that the Division had jurisdiction to entertain a claim filed by a resident employed by an out-of-state business when he was accidentally injured in New Jersey while performing duties in this state on a work assignment from his employer, that case did not purport to establish a standard with respect to occupational disease claims. (pp. 6-7)

2. The fact that an employer is a bi-state agency has not before been recognized as a basis to assume jurisdiction. The traumatic accidents involved in Boyle and similar cases that caused injury in New Jersey (thereby satisfying Larson's place of injury extraterritoriality requirement) involved claims that allegedly satisfied the Act's requirements for a compensable accident. For extraterritorial purposes, while a single traumatic event forms the sole basis for compensation sought for the injuries caused by the event, and the single accidental injury involved in the Boyle-type case provides a substantial nexus to New Jersey, an occupational injury based on an occupational exposure at work over a period of time is much more complex. (pp. 7-9)

3. Although many occupational diseases generally remain unknown or undisclosed throughout a long history of continued work exposure, that fact alone is an insufficient basis to hold that any exposure in New Jersey, even for a few days or weeks that may minimally contribute to the development of an occupational disease, should permit the Division to exercise jurisdiction. (p. 9)

4. Because there are critical differences between accidental and occupational injuries, the appropriate starting point in the formulation of a standard for deciding when to exercise extraterritorial jurisdiction in occupational injury cases is the occupational disease section of the Workers' Compensation Act itself, which defines "compensable occupational diseases" as those established to have arisen out of and in the course of employment, which are due in a material degree to causes and conditions that are or were characteristic of or peculiar to a particular trade, occupation, process, or place of employment. (pp. 9-10)

5. In order to invoke the jurisdiction of the Division in extraterritorial occupational disease cases based on the occurrence of injury in New Jersey, the petitioner must demonstrate either that (1) there was a period of work exposure in this State that was not insubstantial under the totality of circumstances and given the nature of the injury; (2) the period of exposure was not substantial but the materials were highly toxic; or (3) the disease for which compensation is sought was obvious or disclosed by medical examination, work incapacity, or manifest loss of physical function while working in New Jersey. Applying that standard to this case, exposure for the relatively short period at issue cannot satisfy the injury requirement, especially given the fact that the exposure was not to highly toxic materials known to cause disease even with minimal contact, such as asbestos or PCBs. Those occupational exposures require a more flexible standard. (pp. 10-12)

6. Williams' brief period of exposure in New Jersey cannot be said to have contributed to a material degree to the development of is chronic bronchitis that was not diagnosed until twenty years after his New Jersey exposure had ended, and any injury Williams suffered while working in New Jersey was so minor that it was not compensable. (pp. 13-14)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Division of Workers' Compensation to dismiss the claim petition.

JUSTICE LONG has filed a separate dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICE ZAZZALI joins. Justice Long is of the view that Williams' period of exposure was not casual, brief, or insubstantial, and that New Jersey has more than a casual connection to the employment. She further believes that because Williams' choice of jurisdictions each had more than a casual interest in his claim, he was entitled to invoke the jurisdiction of the state whose laws would provide the highest available amount of compensation from his employer, which in this case, was New Jersey.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES VERNIERO, LaVECCHIA, and ALBIN join in JUSTICE COLEMAN's opinion. JUSTICE LONG has filed a separate dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICE ZAZZALI joins.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Coleman, J.

Argued October 8, 2002

In this workers' compensation case, the petitioner has filed a claim alleging that he has sustained an occupational pulmonary disease that is causally related to his twenty-eight years of employment with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (Port Authority). The sole issue before us is whether the New Jersey Division of Workers' Compensation (Division) should have exercised subject-matter jurisdiction based on four months of exposure in New Jersey that predated twenty-one years of subsequent exposure in New York. The Division and a majority in the Appellate Division held that the four-month exposure was sufficiently substantial to constitute injury, thereby conferring jurisdiction. We disagree and reverse.

I.

Petitioner was employed by the Port Authority from 1969 until the time of his age retirement in 1997. The employment contract was made in New York where petitioner resided throughout his employment. Prior to February 1973, petitioner worked as an elevator operator in New York. Thereafter, he was assigned to perform maintenance work. He worked from February 4, 1973, until June 11, 1973, a period of approximately four months, on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge cleaning tollbooths and tiled walls of the tunnels associated with the bridge. He used strong chemicals as cleaning and degreasing agents. In addition, he was exposed to exhaust fumes from vehicles crossing the bridge. At no time during that four-month interval did petitioner complain of symptoms or a disability related to his work. At the end of the four months, petitioner was assigned to perform work at LaGuardia Airport, using the same chemicals and degreasing agents, where he remained for approximately eight years. He was then assigned to perform the same work at Kennedy Airport where he worked until 1994 when he accepted a skycap position. While working at the airports, he also was exposed to exhaust fumes from planes using the taxiways and runways. He retired from the skycap job in 1997 based on his age. Petitioner first consulted a physician for pulmonary problems in 1993. His pulmonary problem, for which he seeks compensation, has been diagnosed by petitioner's expert as "chronic bronchitis and probable restrictive pulmonary disease."

In May 1997, petitioner filed an occupational workers' compensation claim with the Division alleging, among other conditions, pulmonary disability related to his work exposure between September 22, 1969, and May 15, 1997. Although the Port Authority raised the defense of lack of subject-matter jurisdiction in its answer, the Judge of Compensation reserved decision on the jurisdictional issue until the conclusion of the trial. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge found that the Division should exercise jurisdiction and awarded petitioner a partial permanent disability of ...


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