Know Your Rights: Accidental Disability
By Timothy Smith, Esq.
A New Jersey police officer who retires on an accidental disability retirement pension is entitled to higher pension benefits. Accordingly, it is important to understand the eligibility requirements for securing such a pension. To be eligible, a claimant must establish:
(1) that he or she is permanently and totally disabled;
(2) as a direct result of a traumatic event that is
a. identifiable as to time and place,
b. undesigned and unexpected, and
c. caused by a circumstance external to the member (not the result of pre-existing disease that is aggravated or accelerated by the work).
(3) that the traumatic event occurred during and as a result of the member's regular or assigned duties;
(4) that the disability was not the result of the member's willful negligence; and
(5) that the member is mentally or physically incapacitated from performing his usual or any other duty.
One would need to write a book to explain the ins and outs of all these requirements. This article focuses on just one: that the injury be “undesigned and unexpected.” The meaning of the phrase is not at all self-evident. The best way to understand it is to look at cases that have interpreted it.
In one New Jersey Supreme Court case, Richardson v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, the court gave the following examples of the kinds of accidents that would qualify for accidental disability retirement benefits: “A policeman can be shot while pursuing a suspect; a librarian can be hit by a falling bookshelf while re-shelving books; a social worker can catch her hand in the car door while transporting a child to court.”
The Richardson Court said that a police officer who has a heart attack while chasing a suspect would not qualify because, “Work effort alone or in combination with pre-existing disease, was the cause of the injury.” However, the court explained that “The same police officer who was permanently and totally disabled during the chase because of a fall, has suffered a traumatic event.” Likewise, the court stated, a gym teacher who develops arthritis from repetitive effects of his work over the years would not qualify as suffering a traumatic event. But if the same gym teacher trips over a riser and is injured, that injury would satisfy the standard.
There are Appellate Division cases that have applied the “undesigned and unexpected” legal standard to different fact patterns. For example, in one case, the Appellate Division ruled that a fireman who suffered a disabling injury while kicking down the door of a burning building — because the tools normally used by firefighters to break down doors had not yet arrived — had suffered an “undesigned and unexpected” event. In a school-employee case, the Appellate Division approved of accidental disability retirement benefits for a school custodian who injured his shoulder moving a 300-pound weight bench into the school. The court reasoned that the custodian's accident was clearly “undesigned and unexpected” because he had been confronted with an unusual situation of students attempting to carry the heavy bench into the school, took charge of the activity, and the students suddenly dropped their side of the bench, placing its entire weight on the custodian.
In another case, a female corrections officer disabled her wrist while operating a gate that separated access to the prison’s tiers. Although the officer had operated the gate many times without incident, on one occasion, the gate suddenly stopped in its tracks. The officer then heard a pop in her wrist. That injury turned out to be a permanent and totally disabling injury. But the Pension Board ruled that the injury was not “undesigned and unexpected.” The Appellate Division disagreed. It reasoned that absent evidence of known prior malfunctions, employees should be able to expect that equipment supplied to them will not injure them. The court further stated that such an expectation was especially true in a prison where safety and security concerns are elevated. Hence, the court concluded that under the particular circumstances of that case, the officer’s injury resulted from an “undesigned and unexpected” event.
Reviewing these examples, the one thing that becomes clear is that there is nothing clear about determining if any given situation fits the test of being an injury that is “undesigned and unexpected.” If an officer’s injury is absolutely identical to one of the examples given above, then that officer’s accidental-disability application should be approved of without difficulty. Otherwise, a trip to the Appellate Division may be necessary to decide the matter.