On January 21, 2010, the Appellate Division decided In the Matter of Rosemarie Tatusko, Docket No.: A-2888-08T3. The case involved an appeal from a final decision of the Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System which denied Rosemarie Tatusko’s (“Appellant”) application for an accidental disability pension.
Appellant was employed by the Department of Corrections as a senior correctional officer at the Burlington County Jail. Her application for an accidental disability pension was based on an incident that occurred on Ocotber 22, 2005, when she assisted in saving a female inmate who had attempted to commit suicide. Appellant heard a “hacking gagging noise,” and when she scanned the prison cells to determine the source of this noise, she found the inmate hanging from a sheet in her cell. Appellant called another correctional officer to help her and the two of them were able to cut down the sheet with scissors and get the inmate to the floor. Appellant though at the moment that the inmate had died, but later found out that she had survived the attempted suicide.
At the time of the incident, Appellant had been a corrections officer for eight years. During that time, she had witnessed three other attempted suicides, two of which involved inmates cutting their wrists and the third of which also involved a hanging. Appellant did not experience any psychological problems after any of those three prior incidents. However, Appellant suffered a total and permanent psychological disability as a result of the October 22, 2005 incident. When Appellant was asked at the hearing on her application before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) how the October 22, 2005 incident differed from those prior incidents, she responded: “I don’t know. I can’t explain.”
The ALJ concluded that Appellant’s observations of the inmate’s attempted suicide and efforts to save her constituted a traumatic psychological event and, therefore, granted Appellant’s application. The Board rejected this recommended conclusion and determined that Appellant’s application should be denied because Appellant’s observation of the inmate’s attempted suicide and her subsequent efforts to save the inmate were not objectively capable of causing a reasonable corrections officer with training and experience similar to appellant to suffer a disabling mental injury. This appeal ensued.
The Appellate Division determined the Board correctly concluded that the determination whether a mental stressor was “objectively capable of causing a reasonable person in similar circumstances to suffer a disabling mental injury” should be made from the perspective of “a reasonable corrections officer with similar experience and training.” The Court also noted that the Board, which is composed partly of law enforcement officers, is in a better position than the Court to decide whether “a reasonable corrections officer with similar experience and training” could suffer a disabling mental injury as a result of the October 22, 2005 incident upon which Appellant based her claim for an accidental disability. As such, the Court affirmed the Board’s decision to deny Appellant’s application.