Since the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in Richardson v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, 192 N.J. 189 (2007), we have witnessed more denials of accidental disability applications based on the premise that the member suffered from a pre-existing illness or injury which contributed to the overall disability that prevented the member from returning to employment. However, where the scenario gets particularly interesting is when the pre-existing injury or illness was the result of a work related traumatic event. One would think that such a denial does not make sense under the Richardson decision as a “traumatic event,” as redefined by the Supreme Court, and the resulting injuries sustained therefrom should not qualify or be viewed as a pre-existing illness or injury. Such a scenario and situation has not been addressed by New Jersey courts and is ripe for review to further flush out this new and evolving area of the law.
While the last paragraph may sound like a tongue twister, we will try to explain it in plain english. New Jersey courts are currently grappling with scenarios revolving around multiple injuries caused by separate traumatic events which together cause a member to be permanently disabled from performing his or her job. However, the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, Public Employees’ Retirement System and Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund do not believe that a person with multiple injuries that occurred as the result of multiple traumatic events should be entitled to receive accidental disability benefits. As a result, the various pension funds have been disqualifying applicants with multiple injuries caused by multiple traumatic events.
In Richardson, the New Jersey Supreme Court revisited the “traumatic event” standard under the accidental disability retirement provision of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1. After conducting an exhausting analysis of conflicting court decisions which interpreted the traumatic event standard differently and the legislative history of the amendments to the accidental disability statutes, the Court opined that a “traumatic event” is essentially the same as what has been historically understood as an “accident” to be. An “accident” as defined under Richardson, is an unexpected, external happening that directly causes injury and is not the result of pre-existing disease alone or in combination with work. Based on establishing this baseline definition of “accident,” the Court held that in order to obtain accidental disability benefits, a member must prove amongst other things that he or she is totally and permanently disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event that is:
1. Identifiable as to time and place;
2. Undesigned and unexpected; and
3. Caused by a circumstance external to the member (not the result of pre-existing disease that is aggravated or accelerated by the work).
The Richardson Court also provided examples of situations that satisfy the newly enunciated traumatic event standard. The first example depicted a police officer who suffers a heart attack while chasing a suspect. The Court instructed that the police officer in such a situation has not experienced a traumatic event. In that case, the work effort, alone or in combination with a pre-existing disease, was the cause of the disabling injury. However, the Court stated if that the same police officer became permanently and totally disabled during the chase solely because of a fall, the officer has suffered a traumatic event that would give rise to an award of accidental disability benefits. Thereafter, the court provided another example. A gym teacher who develops arthritis from the repetitive effects of his work over the years has not suffered a traumatic event as defined and articulated under Richardson. Such a disability is the result of degenerative disease and is not related to an event that is identifiable as to time and place. On the contrary, the same gym teacher who trips over a riser, is injured and becomes permanently and totally disabled as a result of the fall, has satisfied the accidental disability standard.
In sum, the Court held that a member who is injured while performing his or her ordinary duties does not disqualify him or her from receiving accidental disability benefits; some injuries sustained during the ordinary work effort will pass muster and others will not. However, the polestar of the inquiry is whether, during the regular performance of his or her job, an unexpected happening, not the result of pre-existing disease alone or in combination with the work, has occurred and directly resulted in the permanent and total disability of the member.
In our next post, we will look further into Richardson and whether members with multiple injuries resulting from multiple traumatic events should qualify for accidental disability benefits.