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Fitzgerald v. Stables

January 25, 2006

LINDA FITZGERALD, PETITIONER-RESPONDENT,
v.
TOM CODDINGTON STABLES, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT, AND N.J. HORSE RACING INJURY COMPENSATION BOARD, RESPONDENT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 370 N.J. Super. 582 (2004).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

In this appeal, the Court addresses the seeming contradiction that arises from the intersection of two statutory workers' compensation requirements applicable to employees in the State's horse racing industry. Under N.J.S.A. 34:15-134.1, all horse trainers are obligated to provide workers' compensation insurance to their employees. Under N.J.S.A. 34:15-134a, the New Jersey Horse Racing Injury Compensation Board (Compensation Board) is obligated to secure workers' compensation insurance coverage for horse racing industry employees.

In early 2001, Linda Fitzgerald was employed as a second trainer and groom by Tom Coddington Stables (Coddington Stables), a trainer operating out of Showplace Farms in Millstone Township. Coddington Stables satisfied its obligation to provide workers' compensation coverage to Fitzgerald by the purchase of coverage from a private carrier. In April of 2001, in the course of her employment with Coddington Stables, while caring for a horse not owned by her employer, Fitzgerald was injured when the horse jumped and struck her.

Fitzgerald submitted two petitions before the Division of Workers' Compensation. One petition sought benefits from Coddington Stables under its statutorily required coverage. The second petition sought compensation from the Compensation Board on the basis that Fitzgerald was a horse racing industry employee and, hence, is entitled to coverage from the Board. The issue is which entity, Coddington Stables or the Board, is to bear the burden of that coverage.

The workers' compensation judge decided that the Compensation Board was responsible for payments due Fitzgerald from the accident. The Appellate Division affirmed. In affirming, the appellate panel rejected the Board's argument that the statutory definition of a "horse racing industry employee" applies only to the employees of the actual owner of the horse and that, therefore, Fitzgerald was not a racing horse industry employee because she was working on a horse that was not owned by Coddington Stables.

On reconsideration of its denial of the Board's petition for certification, this Court granted the Board's petition for certification.

HELD: Linda Fitzgerald, Coddington Stables' horse-trainer employee, does not fall within the plain meaning of the Horse Racing Injury Compensation Board Act's definition of a "horse racing industry employee;" the workers' compensation scheme established pursuant to the Act requires that a horse trainer not employed by the horse's owner must be covered by private workers' compensation coverage provided by the employer; the worke rs' compensation coverage provided by the Board is intended as a safety net for those instances where serious injuries have been sustained for which there is no coverage.

1. The ultimate purpose of the workers' compensation statutes is to provide a dependable minimum of compensation to insure security from want during a period of disability. It is the understanding of most workers that the benefits of the workers' compensation statutes apply to accidents arising out of the course of their employment. Consistent with its humanitarian ideals, our workers' compensation statutory scheme has always been liberally construed in favor of coverage. (p. 9)

2. In addressing the specific purpose of the Horse Racing Compensation Injury Compensation Board Act (the Act), the Legislature declared that because of the unique nature of the horse racing industry, difficulties have arisen in assuring that workers' compensation coverage is provided to employees. The purpose of the Act was to fill a gap in workers' compensation coverage unique to the horse racing industry. (pp. 11-12)

3. By the adoption of this remedial legislation, the Legislature did not intend to provide blanket coverage to every person employed in the horse racing industry. Horse owners are the employers subject to the obligations of the workers' compensation scheme established by the Act and, as such, bear the burden of funding that scheme in its entirety. In contrast, the workers' compensation obligation of a horse trainer is the same as the general workers' compensation obligation of any non-horse owner employer. (pp. 12-13)

4. The Act, when viewed as a whole, is designed as a safety net to catch those employed in the horse racing industry who are employed by horse owners and are without workers' compensation coverage. In furtherance of the goal of providing workers' compensation coverage to those in the horse racing industry who otherwise were without coverage, the Legislature limited the universe of beneficiaries of that workers' compensation scheme to those who are engaged in performing services for an owner or those horse trainers who otherwise would be considered an employee of the owner. The Legislature separately required that trainers, not owners, comply with the general workers' compensation requirements for their employees. In short, the legislative scheme evinces a clear limited purpose in coverage, one that is also buttressed by the statute's legislative history. (pp. 16-17)

5. The version of N.J.S.A. 34:15-131 containing the definition that governs Fitzgerald's claim does not include a trainer employed by a horse trainer because a horse trainer is twice statutorily required -- both generally in the Workers' Compensation Act as well as expressly in the Compensation Board Injury Act to provide private workers' compensation coverage to its employees. (pp. 20-21.

6. Fitzgerald does not fall within the statutory definition of a horse racing industry employee; the workers' compensation scheme established by the Act requires that a horse trainer not employed by the owner must be covered by private workers' compensation coverage provided by the trainer's employer; the workers' compensation coverage provided by the Board is intended as a safety net for those instances where serious injuries have been sustained for which there is no coverage. (p.21)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the petitions are REMANDED to the Division of Workers' Compensation for entry of an order dismissing the petition against the Board and reinstating the petition against Coddington Stables.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Rivera-soto

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, ALBIN, and WALLACE join in JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO's opinion.

Argued October 11, 2005

In this appeal, we address the seeming contradiction that arises from the intersection of two separate statutory workers' compensation insurance requirements applicable to employees in New Jersey's horse racing industry: the broad obligation of all horse trainers to provide private workers' compensation insurance to their employees under N.J.S.A. 34:15-134.1 versus the requirement that the New Jersey Horse Racing Injury Compensation Board (Compensation Board or Board) "secure workers' compensation insurance coverage for horse racing industry employees."

N.J.S.A. 34:15-134a.

Both the Division of Workers' Compensation judge and the Appellate Division held that the Board's statutory obligation trumps that of the private employer because, in their view, the petitioner in this action fell squarely within the statute's definition of a "horse racing industry employee" under N.J.S.A. 34:15-131. We disagree, and hold that the petitioner does not fall within the plain meaning of the statutory definition of a "horse racing industry employee," a conclusion also mandated by the statute's purpose and context, and legislative history. We further hold that the workers' compensation scheme established pursuant to the New Jersey Horse Racing Injury Compensation Board Act (Horse Racing Compensation Act), N.J.S.A. 34:15-129 to -142, requires that a horse trainer not employed by an owner must be covered by private workers' compensation insurance provided by ...


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