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Matrinez v. Silverline

June 9, 2003

YOLANDA MARTINEZ, APPELLANT,
v.
SILVERLINE, RESPONDENT.



Before Judges Skillman, Cuff and Lefelt. On appeal from New Jersey Department of Labor, Division of Workers' Compensation.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skillman, P.J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued May 6, 2003

The issue presented by this appeal is whether a worker who has all five fingers amputated in an industrial accident is entitled to the additional workers' compensation benefits provided under N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(c)(21) for amputation of a"hand." We conclude that the Workers' Compensation Act treats the amputation of all five fingers on a hand as equivalent to amputation of the hand and therefore petitioner is entitled to this additional benefit.

Petitioner was using a circular saw to cut a piece of aluminum during the course of her employment with respondent Silverline, when the glove on her right hand became caught in the saw. As a result, all five fingers on her right hand were amputated at the proximal interphalangeal joint, which is the joint nearest the hand. The doctors who attended petitioner attempted to reattach her fingers but were unsuccessful.

Petitioner filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits. The parties entered into a settlement agreement under which petitioner was awarded the costs of her medical treatment and temporary disability benefits. The parties also agreed that petitioner was entitled to 15% partial, permanent disability for psychiatric disability and 100% partial, permanent disability for loss of her right hand, which totaled 335 weeks of partial, permanent benefits. However, they were unable to reach agreement concerning petitioner's entitlement to the 30%"amputation bonus" for loss of a hand provided by N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(c)(21). Consequently, the parties submitted the issue of petitioner's entitlement to this additional benefit to a judge of compensation for decision. The judge concluded that because"the loss of fingers is not specifically mentioned in [N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(c)(21)]," petitioner was not entitled to an amputation bonus.

N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(c)(21) provides in pertinent part:

Amputation between the elbow and the wrist shall be considered as the equivalent of the loss of a hand and amputation at the elbow shall be considered equivalent to the loss of the arm. Amputation between the knee and ankle shall be considered as the equivalent of the loss of a foot, and amputation at the knee shall be considered equivalent to the loss of the leg. An additional amount of 30% of the amputation award shall be added to that award to compute the total award made in amputations of body members, provided, however, that this additional amount shall not be subject to legal fees. (Emphasis added.)

The final sentence of N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(c)(21), providing for the amputation bonus at issue in this appeal, was added to this subsection as part of a comprehensive package of amendments to the Workers' Compensation Act (the Act), N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -142, enacted in 1980, L. 1979, c. 283.*fn1 According to the Sponsor's Statement, the primary purpose of these amendments was to"make available additional dollars for benefits to seriously disabled workers while clarifying and tightening awards of compensation benefits based upon insignificant permanent partial disabilities." Sponsor's Statement to S. 802 of 1979.

In Trinter v. Esmar Div., 186 N.J. Super. 316 (App. Div. 1982), we held that entitlement to the amputation bonus provided by N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(c)(21) is limited to the amputation of a hand, arm, foot or leg and therefore cannot be claimed by a worker who has a finger amputated. We concluded that even though the term"body member" used in the final sentence of N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(c)(21) ordinarily would include a finger,"reading § 12(c) as a whole in conjunction with the available legislative history requires a construction that the term as used in § 21 is only meant to refer to hands, arms, feet and legs." Id. at 318. In reaching this conclusion, we considered it significant that the provision for an amputation bonus was added to a subsection of N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(c) which deals exclusively with amputations of the hand, arm, foot and leg:

Given the paragraph structure of § 12(c) and the division of topics among those paragraphs, the logical conclusion is that if the added sentence was to apply to body members other than hands, arms, feet and legs (the members treated in the first sentence of paragraph (21)), it would have been set off in a numbered paragraph of its own. [Id. at 319-20.]

We also noted that this construction of N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(c)(21) was consistent with the general intent of the 1980 amendments to provide increased benefits only to the most seriously injured workers:

[T]he number of weeks of compensation to be paid for amputation of a thumb, finger or toe was not changed by the 1980 amendments. N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(c)(1) to (7). The number of weeks of compensation to be paid for loss of a hand, arm, foot or leg, however, was increased by the 1980 amendments. This comports with the expressed intent of the Legislature to make increased awards to"more seriously injured workers." [Id. at 320-21.]

Although it is clear under Trinter that petitioner would not be entitled to an amputation bonus if her accident had resulted in the amputation of only one of her fingers, N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(c)(8) provides for an award of the same partial, permanent benefits for amputation of a"thumb and first and second fingers... or four fingers" as for a hand. N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(c)(1) to (11) ...


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