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Joseph C. Saitta and Patricia Saitta, His Wife v. Theodore Hiller

April 29, 2011


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Docket No. L-9276-02.

Per curiam.


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 In an unpublished opinion, we reversed the order and remanded for further proceedings to discern whether the benefits were genuinely duplicative of plaintiff's award for lost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, ...

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