April 29, 2011
JOSEPH C. SAITTA AND PATRICIA SAITTA, HIS WIFE, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
THEODORE HILLER, D.C., DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT, AND ART HEINRICH, D.C., DEFENDANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Docket No. L-9276-02.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued January 20, 2011
Before Judges Lihotz and J. N. Harris.
In this professional negligence matter, plaintiff Joseph C. Saitta*fn1 appeals from a March 24, 2010 Law Division order, entered following our remand. At the conclusion of trial, the judge considered motions to settle the form of judgment. Relevant to the matter now presented, the trial judge denied the defense motion to offset the jury award for lost wages by sums plaintiff received from the New Jersey Building Laborers Statewide Benefit Welfare Fund, Pension Fund and Annuity Fund (the pension fund). The trial judge denied the offset, finding it was merely "speculative" that the pension benefits would appropriately qualify as a collateral source pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:15-97 (the Collateral Source Rule). In an unpublished opinion, we reversed the order and remanded for further proceedings to discern whether the benefits were genuinely duplicative of plaintiff's award for lost wages. Saitta v. Hiller, No. A-5167-06 (App. Div. June 16, 2008) (slip op. at 6).
On remand, Judge Diane Pincus considered additional written submissions, heard oral argument and issued a bench decision memorialized by the court's March 24, 2010 order, concluding the benefits must reduce the award for lost wages. On appeal, plaintiff challenges the court's legal conclusion as error.
Alternatively, he argues that if the benefits are a collateral source, the court erred in its calculations. Following our review of the arguments on appeal, in light of the record and the applicable law, we affirm.
The facts as found by the trial judge are not disputed. Judge Pincus reviewed the pension fund's summary plan description and determined the plan is funded solely by employer contributions. Employees are not permitted to contribute to the fund, but earn benefits based on the number of hours worked. The court noted "[t]he employee has very limited, if any, control over the circumstances upon which  benefits can be collected. They are not to be used at his or her discretion." The court found the plan issued benefits for two purposes: first, payments were intended "to provide for retirement and, [second,] to act as insurance in cases involving disability." It was not disputed that plaintiff stopped working as a direct result of his injuries in this case and claimed the benefits he had earned based upon his 25.5 credits,*fn2 which entitled him to $1472.62 per month. Finally, had plaintiff continued working, he would have earned additional benefits. These facts led to the court's conclusion that the pension benefits are a collateral source as defined by N.J.S.A. 2A:15-97, and should be deducted from plaintiff's jury award.
"Statutory interpretation is a question of law for the court, subject to independent review." County of Bergen Emp. Benefit Plan v. Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of N.J., 412 N.J. Super. 126, 131 (App. Div. 2010) (citing In re Liquidation of Integrity Ins. Co., 193 N.J. 86, 94 (2007)). In our review, we owe no deference to a trial court's interpretation of the statutory language, or to its assessment of "the legal consequences that flow from established facts[.]" Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).
The Collateral Source Rule provides, in pertinent part:
In any civil action brought for personal injury[,] . . . if a plaintiff receives or is entitled to receive benefits for the injuries allegedly incurred from any other source other than a joint tortfeasor, the benefits, other than workers' compensation benefits or the proceeds from a life insurance policy, shall be disclosed to the court and the amount thereof which duplicates any benefit contained in the award shall be deducted from any award recovered by the plaintiff, less any premium paid to an insurer directly by the plaintiff or by any member of the plaintiff's family on behalf of the plaintiff for the policy period during which the benefits are payable. [N.J.S.A. 2A:15-97.]
The statute's two-fold purpose is well-settled: "'to eliminate the double recovery to plaintiffs that flowed from the common-law collateral source rule and to allocate the benefit of that change to liability carriers.'" County of Bergen Emp. Benefit Plan, supra, 412 N.J. Super. at 132 (quoting Perreira v. Rediger, 169 N.J. 399, 403 (2001)). See also Adamson v. Chiovaro, 308 N.J. Super. 70, 78-79 (App. Div. 1998) ("The purpose of the statute, of course, is to prevent a plaintiff from recovering cumulative, duplicative benefits.").
Plaintiff maintains the benefits he received from the pension fund were not duplicative of benefits awarded by the jury. Plaintiff suggests he was forced into early retirement and collected benefits under the plan's disability pension provisions. Nevertheless, he contends the benefits were not a substitute for lost wages as the monthly benefit was not related to the wages plaintiff had earned when he stopped working, but determined based on the years he had worked. Plaintiff argues the benefit was strictly a retirement investment and had no relationship to his wages. We disagree.
The contractual union benefits afforded to plaintiff because he was disabled are exactly the type of collateral employment benefits upon which the statute focuses. See Kiss v. Jacob, 138 N.J. 278, 282 (1994) (stating the types of benefits the Legislature intended to cover include benefits provided by "health insurance policies,  employment contracts,  statutes such as . . . the Federal Employers' Liability Act,  gratuities,  social legislation such as social security and welfare, and  pensions under special retirement acts"). See also Woodger v. Christ Hosp., 364 N.J. Super. 144, 151 (App. Div. 2003).
Plaintiff's pension benefits are not a result of his savings or investment. Instead the benefits are funded by his employer based on a contractual obligation. Also, members are eligible to collect benefits when proven disabled. Here, plaintiff could no longer work and qualified to receive the pension's monetary compensation for the loss of that stream of income, which he would reasonably have been expected to receive, had he retained his ability to continue to work. The payments are unmistakably income benefits, not an investment.
Consistent with these authorities, we concur with Judge Pincus' conclusion that plaintiff's pension benefits replace his lost wages and therefore, are duplicative of the jury's damage award. Accordingly, plaintiff is required to offset the sums he received, reducing the award due from defendant.
Plaintiff also challenges the motion judge's offset calculations. He argues he is entitled to any sums attributable to an annuity, the employer's pension contribution and the sums plaintiff "lost" because he could not continue to work, earn credits and receive a higher monthly upon retirement at age 65. Plaintiff fails to cite applicable authority to support these claims. We reject these assertions for the reasons stated by Judge Pincus in her oral opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A).
Finally, plaintiff asserts the motion judge miscalculated the social security offset. He states the parties agreed to use the methodology set forth in our opinion. Saitta, supra, slip op. at 16. In our prior review, we concluded from the record presented on appeal that the total social security benefits plaintiff received were $87,044. This sum would be reduced by plaintiff's payments, totaling $12,397 and applicable taxes of $14,325. The resultant net reduction offset we computed was $60,322. Judge Pincus' order used $61,001. Plaintiff seeks correction of the trial judge's order to conform to the findings as stated in our prior opinion. We reject this argument.
Plaintiff's suggestion ignores the fact that on remand, in meeting his burden to prove his income, Caldwell v. Haynes, 136 N.J. 422, 437 (1994), he produced income tax returns for the two years missing from the record previously before us. Saitta, supra, slip op. at 16. Judge Pincus calculated the social security offset aided by plaintiff's actual reported income, which differed from the estimates we used to make our calculations. Ibid.
Because the trial court's calculations were made based upon substantial credible evidence in the record, which plaintiff had an obligation to provide, see Thomas v. Toys "R" Us, Inc., 282 N.J. Super. 569, 586 (App. Div. 1995) (acknowledging the plaintiffs' "statutorily implied good faith burden of coming forward with documentary evidence relevant to the issue of duplicate benefits"), certif. denied, 142 N.J. 574 (1995), we will not disturb the result.
Defendant's arguments challenging the award and quantum of post-judgment interest are not considered as he failed to file a cross-appeal.