Majewski v. Broadalbin-Perth Cent. School Dist.

Decision Date12 May 1998
Citation696 N.E.2d 978,91 N.Y.2d 577,673 N.Y.S.2d 966
Parties, 696 N.E.2d 978, 1998 N.Y. Slip Op. 4556 Thomas MAJEWSKI, Respondent, v.CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant and Third-Party Plaintiff-Respondent. Adirondack Mechanical Corporation, Third-Party Defendant-Appellant.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

SMITH, Judge.

This case requires this Court to examine whether certain amendments to the Workers' Compensation Law should be construed as retroactively applicable to pending actions. We conclude that the Appellate Division properly held that the relevant provisions of the new legislation should not apply to actions pending on the effective date of the amendments. Rather, the provisions should be applied prospectively to actions filed postenactment. Thus, the order of the Appellate Division should be affirmed and the certified question should be answered in the negative.


As alleged in the complaint, plaintiff was employed by third-party defendant Adirondack Mechanical Corporation (AMC). On October 26, 1994, plaintiff was assigned by AMC to perform certain repair work at a school operated and maintained by defendant Broadalbin-Perth Central School District. AMC had contracted with defendant for the completion of this work.

While performing the assigned repair work on the school's premises, plaintiff fell from an allegedly defective ladder which had been provided by defendant. Plaintiff commenced a lawsuit on December 20, 1995 against defendant to recover for his personal injuries based upon claimed violations of Labor Law §§ 200 and 240(1). On January 29, 1996, defendant commenced a third-party action against AMC which alleged that AMC had negligently supervised and failed to protect its employee. Defendant further claimed that AMC owed defendant a duty of contribution and/or indemnification for damages plaintiff might recover.

On July 12, 1996, new legislation, commonly referred to as the Omnibus Workers' Compensation Reform Act of 1996, was passed which amended Workers' Compensation Law § 11 to provide that:

"[a]n employer shall not be liable for contribution or indemnity to any third person based upon liability for injuries sustained by an employee acting within the scope of his or her employment for such employer unless such third person proves through competent medical evidence that such employee has sustained a 'grave injury' " (L. 1996, ch. 635, § 2).

However, the amendments did not affect the power of a third party to recover under express contractual obligations between the employer and the third party (id.). The legislation was signed into law by Governor Pataki on September 10, 1996 with the relevant portions of the Act designated to "take effect immediately." Thereafter, on September 20, 1996, AMC filed a motion for summary judgment against the third-party complaint arguing that the action for contribution and/or indemnification was now barred by the recent enactment. 1

Finding that the legislation was to have retroactive application to pending actions, Supreme Court granted AMC's summary judgment motion and dismissed the third-party complaint. In reversing and denying AMC's motion, the Appellate Division concluded "that the clear legislative intent underlying sections 2 through 9 of the Omnibus Act was that those provisions apply prospectively only" (231 A.D.2d 102, 111, 661 N.Y.S.2d 293). That Court certified the following question to this Court: "Did this court err as a matter of law in reversing the order of the Supreme Court and denying the third-party defendant's motion for summary judgment?" We answer that question in the negative, and affirm the Appellate Division order.


"It is fundamental that a court, in interpreting a statute, should attempt to effectuate the intent of the Legislature" (Patrolmen's Benevolent Assn. v. City of New York, 41 N.Y.2d 205, 208, 391 N.Y.S.2d 544, 359 N.E.2d 1338; see also, Longines-Wittnauer v. Barnes & Reinecke, 15 N.Y.2d 443, 453, 261 N.Y.S.2d 8, 209 N.E.2d 68). As the clearest indicator of legislative intent is the statutory text, the starting point in any case of interpretation must always be the language itself, giving effect to the plain meaning thereof. As we have stated:

"In construing statutes, it is a well-established rule that resort must be had to the natural signification of the words employed, and if they have a definite meaning, which involves no absurdity or contradiction, there is no room for construction and courts have no right to add to or take away from that meaning" (Tompkins v. Hunter, 149 N.Y. 117, 122-123, 43 N.E. 532; see also, Matter of Raritan Dev. Corp. v. Silva, 91 N.Y.2d 98, 667 N.Y.S.2d 327, 689 N.E.2d 1373).

Here, the Act says only that the subject provisions are to "take effect immediately" (L. 1996, ch. 635, § 90). However, the date that legislation is to take effect is a separate question from whether the statute should apply to claims and rights then in existence (see, Shielcrawt v. Moffett, 294 N.Y. 180, 61 N.E.2d 435 [separately analyzing retroactive or prospective application of a statute enacted to "take effect immediately"] ).

While the fact that a statute is to take effect immediately "evinces a sense of urgency," "the meaning of the phrase is equivocal" in an analysis of retroactivity (Becker v. Huss Co., 43 N.Y.2d 527, 541, 402 N.Y.S.2d 980, 373 N.E.2d 1205). In fact, we noted in Becker that "[i]dentical language in other acts has not been enough to require application to pending litigation" (id., at 541, 402 N.Y.S.2d 980, 373 N.E.2d 1205). Here, the significance of the effective date upon our analysis of the reach of the subject provisions is further obscured because the Legislature explicitly designated prospective or retroactive application for other provisions of the Act not at issue here (L. 1996, ch. 635, § 90). Under the circumstances, the proviso that the subject provisions were to "take effect immediately" contributes little to our understanding of whether retroactive application was intended on the issue presented.

It is a fundamental canon of statutory construction that retroactive operation is not favored by courts and statutes will not be given such construction unless the language expressly or by necessary implication requires it (see, Jacobus v. Colgate, 217 N.Y. 235, 240, 111 N.E. 837 [Cardozo, J.] ["It takes a clear expression of the legislative purpose to justify a retroactive application"]; Landgraf v. USI Film Prods., 511 U.S. 244, 265, 114 S.Ct. 1483, 1497, 128 L.Ed.2d 229 ["the presumption against retroactive legislation is deeply rooted in our jurisprudence, and embodies a legal doctrine centuries older than our Republic"] ). An equally settled maxim is that "remedial" legislation or statutes governing procedural matters should be applied retroactively (see, Matter of OnBank & Trust Co., 90 N.Y.2d 725, 730, 665 N.Y.S.2d 389, 688 N.E.2d 245; Becker v. Huss Co., supra, 43 N.Y.2d, at 540, 402 N.Y.S.2d 980, 373 N.E.2d 1205).

However, such construction principles are merely navigational tools to discern legislative intent. Classifying a statute as "remedial" does not automatically overcome the strong presumption of prospectivity since the term may broadly encompass any attempt to "supply some defect or abridge some superfluity in the former law" (McKinney's Cons. Laws of N.Y., Book 1, Statutes § 321). As we have cautioned, "General principles may serve as guides in the search for the intention of the Legislature in a particular case but only where better guides are not available" (Shielcrawt v. Moffett, supra, 294 N.Y., at 189, 61 N.E.2d 435; see also, Matter of OnBank & Trust Co., supra, 90 N.Y.2d, at 730, 665 N.Y.S.2d 389, 688 N.E.2d 245; Becker v. Huss Co., supra, 43 N.Y.2d, at 540, 402 N.Y.S.2d 980, 373 N.E.2d 1205). To that end, we turn to legislative history to steer our analysis.

It is clear that one of the key purposes of the Act was the legislative modification of Dole v. Dow Chem. Co. (30 N.Y.2d 143, 331 N.Y.S.2d 382, 282 N.E.2d 288) insofar as that case related to third-party actions against employers. That intention was repeatedly expressed by all sides during the legislative debates and is included in the official statement of intent (see, L. 1996, ch. 635, § 1 ["It is the further intent of the legislature to create a system which protects injured workers and delivers wage replacement benefits in a fair, equitable and efficient manner, while reducing time-consuming bureaucratic delays, and repealing Dole liability except in cases of grave injury."] ). In Dole, this Court examined the share of losses to be apportioned between joint tortfeasors. Notwithstanding which tortfeasor was sued by an injured plaintiff, this Court concluded that the defendant, if found liable, could recover a proportionate share from a joint tortfeasor. As we stated, "where a third party is found to have been responsible for a part, but not all, of the negligence for which a...

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