(c) 2019 Jon L Gelman, All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Court Has Discretion to Award Counsel Fee Based on Dependent's Life Expectancy

After awarding dependent benefits under N.J.S.A. 34:15-13 to the surviving spouse of a worker who succumbed to an occupational disease, the judge of compensation awarded counsel fees based on the spouse's expected lifetime – in accordance with a 1995 amendment to N.J.S.A. 34:15-13(j) which provided that compensation shall be paid to a surviving spouse "during the entire period of survivorship" – as determined from the table of mortality and life expectancy printed as Appendix I to the New Jersey Rules of Court.

The court rejected the employer's argument on appeal that the proper calculation should have been based on the long-standing basis for counsel fee awards: the 450-week period of payments provided in N.J.S.A. 34:15-12(b) and portions of N.J.S.A. 34:15-13. N.J.S.A. 34:15-64 authorizes a judge of compensation to allow a prevailing party "a reasonable attorney fee, not exceeding [twenty percent] of the judgment." Although the court did not hold the use of the 450-week method traditionally used to calculate counsel fees was improper, it concluded the use of the table to calculate counsel fees was reasonable because it is designed to actuarially calculate the amount of time over which a surviving spouse can expect to receive benefits; in other words, it is based on the judgment amount calculated using the spouse's projected lifespan.

[Published Opinion]

Related Information
National Vital Statistics Report: US Life Tables, 2016 (National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 68, No. 4, May 7, 2019 )

Jon L. Gelman of Wayne NJ is the author of NJ Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters) and co-author of the national treatise, Modern Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters). For over 4 decades the Law Offices of Jon L Gelman has been representing injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational accidents and illnesses.

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