As reported by the New Jersey Law Journal, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently clarified the meaning of the term “undesigned and unexpected” event as it pertains to qualifying for accidental disability retirement benefits for a mental disability in the case of Mount v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen’s Retirement System. In the case, the Supreme Court consolidated two appeals stemming from the Board’s denial of two police officers’ applications for accidental disability retirement benefits.
In the first case, Officer Mount responded to a motor vehicle accident. The vehicle was on fire when Mount responded, and without firefighting gear, Mount was unable to attempt a rescue of the three occupants of the vehicle. Instead, Mount had to look on until firefighters arrived and removed the victims from the vehicle. After being diagnosed with PTSD, Mount resigned from the police department and applied for accidental disability retirement benefits. The Board denied the application and the Appellate Division affirmed, ruling that the “horrific” motor vehicle accident was within Mount’s job description and scope of his training.
In the second case, Officer Martinez was a trained hostage negotiator responding to a hostage situation. Martinez managed to convince the suspect to release his hostages, however, without Martinez’s knowledge, the tactical team later entered the building. While speaking with the suspect, Martinez heard the team open fire and kill the suspect. Martinez was later diagnosed with PTSD and major depressive disorder. The Board initially denied Martinez’s application for accidental disability retirement benefits, but the Appellate Division reversed.
On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed both Appellate Division decisions. The Supreme Court first noted that, to qualify for accidental disability retirement benefits for a mental disability, a plaintiff was required to show he or she suffered a mental disability from a terrifying or horror-inducing event that was undesigned and unexpected. In Mount’s case, the Supreme Court ruled that he had sufficiently demonstrated that he experienced a terrifying or horror-inducing event that was undesigned and unexpected for the course of work of a police officer in watching three occupants of a crashed motor vehicle burn to death. Accordingly, the Supreme Court remanded for the Appellate Division to render a decision on whether Mount’s PTSD was the direct result of watching the car crash.
However, the Supreme Court ruled that Martinez had failed to show that listening to the suspect be taken down by the tactical team was terrifying or horror-inducing or was an undesigned or unexpected event for a hostage negotiator. Commensurate therewith, the Supreme Court ruled that Martinez was not eligible for accidental disability retirement benefits.
The Supreme Court’s recent ruling illustrates that the question as to whether an particular incident is properly classified as “undesigned and unexpected” for purposes of obtaining accidental disability retirement benefits for a mental disability is a fact sensitive inquiry and, generally, “unclear.” To this end, there is a lack of uniformity among Courts as what “type” of event qualifies. Therefore, should you ever find yourself pondering whether to file for accidental disability retirement benefits for a mental disability, you should consult with a qualified, experienced attorney to determine whether such an application is viable.
Please continue to check this blog periodically for updates regarding the state of law pertaining to accidental disability retirement benefits and other areas vital to New Jersey Public Safety Officers.