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Can an Incapacitated New Jersey Beneficiary Receive Dependency Benefits for Life?

The New Jersey Workers Compensation Act specifies that in the case of total disability, the petitioner is entitled to payments for a period of up until 450 weeks. See N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(b). If the petitioner perishes as a result of his workers compensation injury, the Act provides us with guidance for the petitioner’s dependents at the time of death. For example, in the case of a surviving spouse, the Act directs us to N.J.S.A. 34:15-13(j), which states that the surviving spouse shall receive payments for the “entire period of survivorship or until such surviving spouse shall remarry.” See N.J.S.A. 34:15-13(j).

In the case of children as dependents, the plain language of N.J.S.A. 34:15-13 tells us that us that they are entitled to payments up until the age of 18, unless they are physically or mentally deficient which would allow them to collect on the “full compensation period of 450 weeks.” See N.J.S.A. 34:15-13(i). The plain meaning of this statue leads one to interpret the language as limiting disabled dependents to 450 weeks of compensation following the death of the petitioner, unless they are a surviving spouse.

In the case of Apperman v. Visiting Nurse Ass’n of Westfield, a father and son challenged this interpretation of the statute by arguing that a disabled dependent is entitled to benefits for the entirety of his life. In this case, the petitioner tragically lost her life in a motor vehicle accident in 2003. It is undisputed that the petitioner’s accident was work related. The petitioner was survived by her husband, and their adult disabled son, Harold. Harold was thirty-four years old when the accident occurred, and had been adjudicated an incapacitated person in 1988. Harold’s father filed a claim petition in April 2004, seeking dependency benefits for himself and Harold. The parties reached a negotiated settlement on February 23, 2007. On the record, the respondent’s counsel stated that the “son is incompetent and should receive dependency benefits at the amount of [fifty] percent of [the petitioner’s] wages of $800. So, he will get $400 per week for 450 weeks and continuing as long as he remains incompetent.” See Apperman v. Visiting Nurse Ass’n of Westfield, N.J. Super. App. Div. (per curiam) (10 pp.).

The settlement was entered and Harold received dependency benefits up until October 17, 2013. On February 25, 2014, the respondent’s notified Harold’s father that “[n]o further benefits are payable at this time.” Harold received a total of 450 weeks of compensation.

When payments stopped after 450 weeks of compensation, the dependents filed an application to enforce the order of settlement and compel the respondent to resume payment of Harold’s dependency benefits. The dependents argued that the terms of the settlement were specifically negotiated to protect Harold for life, and that both parties interpreted the dependency statute to provide for lifetime dependency benefits. The Respondent opposed the application, arguing it had no legal obligation to pay dependency benefits past the statutory 450-week period, and that inclusion of the language regarding continued benefits thereafter was a mistake of law. The presiding Judge of Compensation denied the dependents application, finding that N.J.S.A. 34:15-13 controlled and limited the benefits to 450 weeks.

The dependents appealed the Judge of Compensation’s decision to the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division. On appeal, the dependents argued that under N.J.S.A. 34:15-13, Harold is entitled to continued dependency benefits for as long as he is disabled. The dependent’s “recognized that the statute does not explicitly provide for benefits for life, but argues the Legislature’s use of the phrase “full compensation period” was a reference to N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(b).” The dependents argued that there would be an unintentional omission in the statute because subsection (i) permits payment of dependency benefits to both minor children and mentally or physically deficient persons, while subsection (j) provides for continuation of benefits beyond 450 weeks for minor dependents who continue in minority but not for adult children who remain incapacitated. The dependents contended that the Legislature did not intend to terminate benefits for adult incompetent dependents such as Harold based on this gap in the statute.

The appellate court rejected the dependent’s argument, stating that the dependents fail to recognize that the “[t]he court’s task is to construe the [statute] as written.” U.S. Bank, N.A. v. Hough, 210 N.J. 187, 199, 42 A.3d 870 (2012). The court found that “as written, section 13(j) unambiguously limits dependency benefits for dependents (including incapacitated dependents) still above the age of majority to 450 weeks.” The appellate court confirmed the compensation’s Judge ruling stating that while the court is not insensitive to the dependents incapacitated condition, they are “not at liberty to subordinate the requirements of the law.”

For now, the courts have concluded that the New Jersey Workers Compensation Act limits incapacitated dependents to 450 weeks of compensation. If the dependents chose to appeal, their next step would be the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

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