What is an undesigned and unexpected traumatic event that takes place in the course of employment for a public employee who is entitled to make a accidental disability retirement claim?
EBONY BROWN, v. BOARD OF TRUSTEES, POLICE AND FIREMEN’S RETIREMENT SYSTEM, Decided February 11, 2019
Submitted by New Jersey Worker’s Compensation Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
Am I entitled to make an accidental disability benefit claim against my public sector employer for my work related injury ?? How do I proceed? This case addresses one specific threshold question regarding how your injury happened and whether or was an undesigned and unexpected event.
Whether or not the July 1, 2008 jammed-gate incident was an “undesigned and unexpected” event. This requirement is an element of eligibility as set forth in the Supreme Court’s seminal opinion in Richardson v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, 192 N.J. 189, 212-13 (2007), clarifying the meaning of the term “traumatic event” under N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1). As delineated in Richardson, a claimant for accidental disability retirement benefits must establish:
(1) that he is permanently and totally disabled;
(2) as a direct 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 (not the result of pre-existing disease that is aggravated or accelerated by the work).
(3) that the traumatic event occurred during and as a result of the member’s regular or assigned duties;
(4) that the disability was not the result of the member’s willful negligence; and
(5) that the member is mentally or physically incapacitated from performing his usual or any other duty.
The Court explained, “[t]he polestar of the inquiry is whether, during the regular performance of his 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.” Id. at 214.
The Court provided in Richardson the following examples of the kinds of accidents occurring during ordinary work efforts that would qualify for accidental disability retirement benefits: “A policeman can be shot while pursuing a suspect; a librarian can be hit by a falling bookshelf while re-shelving books; a social worker can catch her hand in the car door while transporting a child to court.” Ibid.
The Court also provided counter-examples of situations that would not qualify for these benefits under a certain set of facts, but would qualify under a different set of facts. For example, a police officer who has a heart attack while chasing a suspect would not qualify because “work effort, alone or in combination with pre-existing disease, was the cause of the injury.” Id. at 213.
However, the Court explained that “the same police officer [who was] permanently and totally disabled during the chase because of a fall, has suffered a traumatic event.” Ibid. (emphasis added). Likewise, a gym teacher who develops arthritis “from repetitive effects of his work over the years” would not qualify as suffering a traumatic event; however, if the same gym teacher trips over a riser and is injured, that injury would satisfy the standard. Ibid.
Our published decisions have illustratively applied this “undesigned and unexpected” legal standard. For example, in Moran v. Board of Trustees, Police & Firemen’s Retirement System, 438 N.J. Super. 346, 348 (App. Div. 2014), we reversed the Board’s determination and held that a firefighter who suffered a disabling injury while kicking down the door of a burning building – because the tools normally used by firefighters to break down doors had not yet arrived – was an “undesigned and unexpected” event. Similarly in Brooks v. Board of Trustees, Public Employees’ Retirement System, 425 N.J. Super. 277, 279 (App. Div. 2012), we reversed another pension agency’s denial of accidental disability retirement benefits to a school custodian who injured his shoulder moving a 300- pound weight bench into the school. We found the custodian’s accident was clearly “undesigned and unexpected” because he had been confronted with an unusual situation of students attempting to carry the heavy bench into the school, took charge of the activity, and the students suddenly dropped their side of the bench, placing its entire weight on the custodian. Id. at 283.
This appellate panel overturned the Board of Pensions because it reasoned the employee’s claim that the gate had jammed and was stuck while she was pulling it shut on this one time in the middle of her shift was the essence of a simply unexpected fluke, and clearly an undesigned mishap. The appellate panel also recognized a) that the state could not point to any evidence which reflected the fact that this employee was aware of the malfunctioning gate prior to this event, b) the malfunctioning issue was confirmed by maintenance logs, as well c) as the documentation of the injury. Absent evidence of known prior malfunctions, employees reasonably should be able to expect that equipment supplied to them in the workplace will operate properly and not injure them. That is especially true in a jail or prison environment where safety and security concerns are elevated. The discrete circumstances here meet the eligibility criteria of Richardson and what constitutes undesigned and unexpected.