On July 30, 2010, the Appellate Division decided James Henderson v. Board of Trustees, Public Employees’ Retirement System, Docket No.: A-6176-08T2. In the case, James Henderson appealed the Board of Trustees of the Public Employees’ Retirement System’s (“Board”) denial of his application for accidental disability benefits. Frank M. Crivelli, Esq. and Donald C. Barbati, Esq. of the Pellettieri, Rabstein & Altman law firm, and the authors of this blog, successfully argued to reverse the denial, thereby obtaining accidental disability benefits for Henderson.
The case addressed whether Henderson was entitled to accidental disability retirement benefits based upon two (2) separate work-related incidents. Notably, it was undisputed that the first incident causing Henderson injury constituted a “traumatic event.” After initially becoming injured, Henderson was unable to work for some period of time, returned to light duty for a while, and then, ultimately, returned to full duty. The injury was then aggravated and accelerated by a second incident in which Henderson attempted to perform an ordinary task within the scope of his duties and responsibilities of employment.
The Board initially denied Henderson’s application for accidental disability retirement benefits. To support the denial, the Board determined that the second accident did not constitute a “traumatic event” within the meaning of the applicable case law. The Board also found that the injury originally suffered by Henderson in the first incident constituted a “pre-existing disease or condition,” thereby precluding him from receiving said benefits. This appeal ensued.
On appeal, Henderson argued that: (1) the second incident constituted a “traumatic event” within the meaning of the applicable case law; and (2) the term “pre-existing disease or condition” was never intended to include injuries suffered in prior traumatic events for purposes of whether an individual qualifies for accidental benefits.
In its decision, the Appellate Division agreed with the Board’s initial determination that the second incident did not constitute a traumatic event within the meaning of the applicable law. Significantly, however, the Court agreed with our contention that the term “pre-existing disease or condition” does not include injuries suffered in prior traumatic events. Rather, the Court found that term has been uniformly applied to bodily diseases or conditions that were not caused by a traumatic event. The Court cited a litany of case law to support this contention and articulated that the Board’s suggestion that the injuries resulting from the original traumatic event and their sequelae should be treated as pre-existing diseases or conditions is utterly inconsistent with the applicable law.
The Court found that Henderson’s case was simply a delayed manifestation case. Simply put, the Court determined that Henderson suffered a traumatic injury in 2003 that was the proximate cause of the delayed manifestation of his total permanent disability and, therefore, entitled to receive accidental disability retirement benefits. As such, the Board’s original determination was reversed and the case was remanded with instructions to award Henderson the benefits.
The Henderson ruling is significant in the realm of public pension law. Notably, New Jersey courts have finally clarified that injuries suffered by claimants in previous traumatic events do not constitute a “pre-existing disease or condition.” In many cases, the various pension boards characterized injuries suffered by claimants in previous traumatic events as “pre-existing conditions,” thereby precluding these persons from receive accidental disability benefits if they returned to work after the original injuries. In other words, many people were hurt on the job and returned to their employment, only to have their injuries aggravated which, in turn, ultimately disabled them. Prior to this ruling, they would not receive accidental disability retirement benefits. Now, under the current law, claimants can receive these benefits even after returning to work.