On appeal from the Board of Trustees of the Public Employees' Retirement System.
O'Brien, Havey and Stern. The opinion of the court was delivered by Havey, J.A.D.
Petitioner Stephen F. Gable, Sr., appeals from a determination by respondent Board of Trustees of the Public Employees' Retirement System (Board), denying him accidental disability benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43. Petitioner was a correction officer when he sustained injuries during three separate altercations involving jail inmates, resulting in his total disability. The issue on appeal is whether his injuries resulted from "traumatic events" under N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43. We conclude that each of the incidents were traumatic events and therefore reverse the Board's determination.
Petitioner began working as a correction officer in the Camden County Jail in April 1980. He sustained injuries to his back during separate incidents occurring on September 26, 1980, March 19, 1982, and August 10, 1982. Each incident involved an altercation with an inmate while petitioner was carrying out his functions as a correction officer. As a result of the combination of the three incidents, petitioner was permanently and totally disabled. In 1983 he underwent a laminectomy and spinal fusion. He returned to work in March 1984 but in August 1985 was forced to retire because of his physical disability.
Petitioner's application for accidental disability benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43 was denied. At a hearing conducted before an administrative law judge, the parties stipulated petitioner was permanently and totally disabled as a direct result of the three events which occurred during petitioner's regular and assigned duties. It was also stipulated that petitioner was required to show that all three events were "traumatic events"
under N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43 in order to recover accidental disability benefits. The ALJ found that all three incidents were traumatic events and thus petitioner was entitled to an accidental disability retirement pension. The Board rejected the findings of the ALJ, concluding that the events of September 26, 1980 and August 10, 1982 were not traumatic events. However, the Board agreed with the ALJ that the incident of March 19, 1982 was a traumatic event. Since petitioner failed to demonstrate all three events were traumatic, his application for accidental disability benefits was denied.
The facts presented at the ALJ hearing established that petitioner's duties as a correction officer at the Camden County Jail included the general care of inmates which involved feeding, processing, and watching them to make sure they did not hurt themselves or each other, or attempt to escape. Petitioner conceded there were "sporadic" instances of violence, and that it was "always in the back of your mind" that violent behavior might occur. However, he testified that the three incidents in question were not "typical" of his normal duties as a correction officer.
The first incident occurred on September 26, 1980, when petitioner came upon two inmates who were fighting. One of the inmates threw a bottle of talcum powder at petitioner, causing the powder to disperse into petitioner's face and impair his vision. While petitioner was clearing his eyes he heard a chair scrape on the floor and saw the inmate coming toward him with the chair. On cross-examination, he explained that while he was not sure he actually "saw" the chair, the sound of it caused him to believe the inmate had armed himself with it. At that point, petitioner lunged at the inmate and "hit him low." While doing so, petitioner "felt tremendous pain" in his back. Officer Joseph Charles, who witnessed the incident, testified the inmate picked up a chair and struck petitioner across the back with it when petitioner attempted to grab the inmate.
The second event occurred on March 19, 1982 when petitioner attempted to awaken a prisoner in a holding cell. When petitioner shook the legs of the inmate, the inmate kicked petitioner in the chest, propelling him against the concrete cell wall. Officer Frank Schillig testified that the inmate "brought all the force of his body into the feet, hit [petitioner] and drove him up against the wall."
The third and final event took place on August 10, 1982. Petitioner and Officer Schillig were processing an incoming inmate who appeared "to be in a rather unstable mental state." While the inmate was being "deloused" he attempted to escape. Schillig and petitioner grabbed the inmate and called for assistance. A struggle ensued. Petitioner grabbed the inmate around the neck in order to control him. During the struggle everyone "went down in a pile" with petitioner on the bottom. As petitioner fell, his knee struck a one-inch high concrete lip.
On appeal, petitioner contends all three incidents were "traumatic events" under N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43, and thus he is entitled ...