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Ciecwisz v. Board of Trustees

Decided: October 27, 1988.

RICHARD CIECWISZ, RESPONDENT,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES, POLICE AND FIREMEN'S RETIREMENT SYSTEM, APPELLANT



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

For reversal and reinstatement -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Pollock and Garibaldi. For affirmance -- Justices Handler, O'Hern and Stein. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pollock, J. O'Hern, J., dissenting. Justice Handler joins in this opinion. Stein, J., dissenting.

Pollock

This case is controlled by our decision in the companion case of Maynard v. Board of Trustees, Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund, 113 N.J. 169 (1988), in which we held that a slip-and-fall accident is not a traumatic event entitling an injured employee to accidental disability benefits.

Claimant, Richard Ciecwisz, a corrections officer at Rahway State Prison, was permanently and totally disabled as the result of three work-related incidents. On February 9, 1979, he sustained a fractured left clavicle while breaking up a fight between two inmates. On June 2, 1981, he sustained a compressed fracture of a lumbar vertebra when he slipped and fell on some cooking oil spilled on the kitchen floor by two inmates. He again injured his back on May 7, 1983, while subduing an inmate who had "flipped out" in his cell. Ciecwisz filed a claim for accidental disability benefits.

The Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System (the Board) concluded that he was permanently and totally disabled and granted him ordinary, but not accidental disability benefits. In reaching that result, the Board found that the 1981 incident was not a traumatic event and that although the 1983 incident was "traumatic," Ciecwisz's disability was not the direct result of that incident. On Ciecwisz's appeal, the matter was referred to an administrative law judge (ALJ), who agreed, and the Board adopted the ALJ's report.

In an unreported decision, the Appellate Division agreed substantially with the Board, except that the court concluded that the 1981 slip-and-fall accident was a traumatic event that entitled Ciecwisz to accidental disability benefits. We disagree.

As in Maynard, we conclude that a slip-and-fall accident does not entail "a great rush of force or uncontrollable power," Kane v. Board of Trustees, Police & Firemen's Retirement Sys., 100 N.J. 651, 663 (1985), and that claimant was not injured in a traumatic event that would entitle him to accidental disability benefits.

For the reasons set forth in Maynard, we believe that the proposal contained in Justice Stein's dissent does not comport with the legislative intent. 113 N.J. at 177. As we stated in Maynard, "[p]erhaps the Legislature should revisit this subject, but until it does, our duty is to apply the statute in accordance with the legislative intent." Ibid.

Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division, and reinstate the decision of the Board.

O'HERN, J., dissenting.

I dissent from the judgment of the Court for the reasons set forth in my dissent filed this day in Maynard v. Board of Trustees, 113 N.J. 169 (1988).

STEIN, J., dissenting.

In this case and in Maynard v. Board of Trustees, Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund, 113 N.J. 169 (1988), also decided today, the plaintiffs, a corrections officer and teacher, respectively, have sustained injuries resulting in permanent disability. It is undisputed that they are entitled to receive at least ordinary disability benefits, which approximate forty percent of their average final compensation. N.J.S.A. 18A:66-41(b); N.J.S.A. 43:15A-45(b). However, both employees seek accidental disability benefits, which would instead entitle them to approximately two-thirds of their compensation at the time of the incident that caused their injury. The statutes that govern the right to accidental disability benefits for teachers, N.J.S.A. 18A:66-39, for police and firemen, N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43, and for

other public employees, N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43, condition entitlement to an accidental disability benefit on whether the employee's disability was "a direct result of a traumatic event occurring during and as a result of the performance of his regular or assigned duties."

In both cases, the critical incident involved an injury sustained when the employee fell to the ground from a standing position. In Maynard, the plaintiff was a high school English teacher on the way to her mailbox in the high school's main office to pick up student attendance cards. She slipped and fell on a recently waxed floor, striking the back of the right side of her head on ...


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