On July 24, 2007, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the case of Richardson v. Board of Trustees, Police & Firemen’s Retirement System, 192 NJ 189 (2007). The case addressed a new standard to be applied by New Jersey Courts and Administrative Tribunals in awarding accidental disability retirement benefits under the provisions of various New Jersey statutes. In its decision, the Court greatly expanded the class of accidents that will entitle an employee to receive “accidental disability retirement benefits” upon being injured during employment. As a result of this decision, theoretically, many more employees will be entitled to the more extensive benefits provided under the accidental disability retirement statutes in the event of an accident or mishap in the workplace.
Prior to this decision, the test for determining whether a certain accident would qualify an individual for accidental disability retirement benefits was extremely ambiguous. In fact, many courts and practicing attorneys had a very difficult time interpreting whether a certain type of accident would entitle an individual to qualify and receive accidental disability benefits. Essentially, the determination became centered upon whether the disability was the result of a “traumatic event.” Many interpretations of this term were produced over the years, but, ultimately, courts determined that a “traumatic event” required that the cause of an injury be “a great rush of force or uncontrollable power.” As expected, this standard was very vague, restrictive, and interpreted in different ways by various judges. Consequently, courts were very inconsistent in applying this standard, thereby making it very difficult to predict which accidents would entitle an individual to accidental disability benefits. Therefore, only a limited class of employees who suffered a particular type of injury emerged as being qualified to receive these benefits.
In response to the prior standard’s confusion and restrictiveness, the Richardson Court has now announced a new standard in awarding accidental disability benefits. Now, in order to obtain accidental disability benefits, an employee must prove that:
(1) He or she is permanently and totally disabled;
(2) That the disability is the 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;
(3) The traumatic event must have occurred during and as a result of the member’s regular or assigned duties;
(4) The disability was not the result of the member’s willful negligence; and
(5) The member is mentally and physically incapacitated from performing his or her usual or any other duty.
Most importantly, this standard has eliminated the “great rush of force or uncontrollable power” requirement. Now, a traumatic injury is essentially the same as what has been understood to be an accident, an external happening that directly causes injury and is not the result of pre-existing disease alone or in combination with the work effort. Thus, any member who is injured as a direct result of an identifiable, unanticipated mishap can satisfy the traumatic event standard.
For instance, in the Richardson case, the plaintiff, a New Jersey State Correction Officer, permanently injured his wrist while trying to handcuff an unruly inmate. Under the new test, Richardson was found to have suffered a traumatic event and is now entitled to accidental disability retirement benefits. As previously stated in my last post, accidental disability benefits provide two thirds (66%) of an individual’s annual compensation benefits. On the other hand ordinary disability benefits only provide approximately forty percent (40%) of the member’s compensation. Additionally, such injuries as slip and falls can potentially be covered under the new standard, where as in the past, the injured employee would only be entitled to ordinary disability benefits.
In summary, under the new accidental disability standard, the fact that a member is injured while performing the course of their ordinary duties will not disqualify them from receiving an accidental disability pension. Case law is still developing as to the Court’s interpretation of the Richardson decision, and how the Board of Trustees for the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System are applying the new standard to the applications they are now receiving. Based on my experience, the Board of Trustees has been inconsistent in its review of accidental disability retirement applications since Richardson. It cannot be controverted that individuals have been awarded accidental disability benefits that would have otherwise been denied under the old standard. However it also appears as if an inordinate number of applications are now being denied and thus contested under the prong that the injury must be “Identifiable as to time and place”, and that “the disability was not the result of the member’s willful negligence”. It will be interesting to follow the direction of the administrative and appellate courts in interpreting the new Richardson test and the award of accidental disability benefits.