On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division (Kane v. Board of Trustees and Canastra v. Board of Trustees). On certification to the Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System (Minner v Board of Trustees).
For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. For reversal. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Clifford, J.
We must determine in these consolidated cases the circumstances under which a police officer may be retired on an accidental disability retirement allowance under the Police and Firemen's Retirement System, N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1 to -68. The statute provides for payment of such benefits when an officer is "permanently and totally disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event * * *." N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that none of the officers before us is entitled to an accidental disability retirement allowance.
A. Kane v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System
Daniel J. Kane joined the police force in Gloucester Township in 1972 and enrolled in the Police and Firemen's Retirement System in that same year. Kane's police duties included inspecting the homes of residents who were away on vacation to determine whether any burglaries had occurred and to ensure generally that the homes were secure. These "vacation checks" were performed once every 24 hours at the request of the vacationing homeowner.
On November 23, 1980, Kane reported to work and, in uniform, began a one-man patrol. Part of his assigned duties for that day was to perform a vacation check on a home within his patrol area. Kane arrived at the house at approximately 7:30
a.m. and cleared the departure from his patrol car with the radio-dispatcher at police headquarters.
Kane walked around the house, checking the doors and windows, until he reached the garage area. There was a raised lip of concrete, approximately three inches in height, that ran around the front of the door to the second garage. This second garage was a later addition -- hence, the lack of an even match in the concrete.
When the police officer stepped on this uneven piece of concrete, he felt his left ankle give way. In his words, "[a]s I stepped and watched the window in the garage * * *, I stepped on this concrete and felt my ankle go. In an attempt to save myself from falling, I shifted my weight at that point * * * [and] I knew I did something to my ankle and my knee." Basically, to save himself from falling, Kane shifted his body weight from his ankle to his knee, but at no time did he either fall to the ground or come into contact with the door.
Feeling "a lot of pain" in the ankle and knee, Kane limped back to the patrol car to use the radio to notify the sergeant about the mishap. The sergeant instructed Kane to undergo an examination in the Emergency Room of West Jersey Hospital, which he did that same morning. The record is unclear as to the precise condition from which Kane suffered, but two years after the incident he still wore an orthopedic brace, never having returned to active duty.
Kane timely filed for an accidental disability retirement allowance on March 16, 1982. The Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (Board) denied the officer's application on the basis of its conclusion that the incident in question was not a "traumatic event." A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), who concluded that the officer's mishap outside of the garage door constituted a "traumatic event" within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7 and that the application should be approved. The
Board rejected the ALJ's conclusion, and issued its final determination denying Kane the requested relief.
Kane appealed the Board's final determination to the Appellate Division, which reversed the Board's decision and remanded with directions that Kane be granted an accidental disability retirement allowance. We granted certification, 99 N.J. 160 (1984).
B. Canastra v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System
Donald J. Canastra began his employment as a detective for Middlesex County in 1965; he enrolled in the Police and Firemen's Retirement System in 1969. On August 24, 1977, Canastra, while investigating organized crime and vice, was gathering information that would be used to prepare a wiretap affidavit. The mishap at issue here occurred at about 3:30 p.m. when Canastra was returning to headquarters.
As Canastra alighted from an unmarked police car, he stepped on a large stone in the headquarters parking lot. In the officer's words, "[u]pon exiting the vehicle, I wrenched my leg, I went almost to the ground and then I observed that what I had stepped on was a large blue stone." The stone was of a type commonly used in parking areas, although in this instance it was four or five inches in size instead of the usual size of about one inch. Canastra reached for and held onto the car for support but at no time did he make contact with the ground.
Canastra stated that he felt a "funny sensation in the knee" and that he was unable to straighten his right leg. The knee also swelled on the right side. After limping from the parking area to his office, the officer sought medical treatment, which basically consisted of wrapping the knee in a bandage and soaking it in hot water to reduce the swelling. The doctor who examined Canastra also gave him something for pain, although the record is not clear on the amount or type of drug actually used.
Canastra missed approximately two weeks of work on account of the injury. After returning to duty, he did mostly paperwork, and for some time he used a cane to walk. His attendance on the job became sporadic, however, because his knee would swell during the day and he would have to return home to apply heat.
Canastra timely filed for an accidental disability retirement allowance on October 20, 1981. After the Board of Trustees denied the officer's application, a hearing was held before the same ALJ who had presided in the Kane matter. The Judge concluded that because the incident in the headquarters parking lot constituted a "traumatic event," an accidental disability retirement allowance should be awarded. The Board rejected that conclusion and issued its final determination denying Canastra the requested relief.
Canastra appealed the Board's final determination to the Appellate Division, which reversed the Board's decision. It held that the officer was entitled to an accidental disability retirement ...