On appeal from the Final Administrative Determination of the Board of Trustees, Public Employees' Retirement System.
Antell, Dreier and Brochin. The opinion of the court was delivered by Brochin, J.s.c. (temporarily assigned).
[231 NJSuper Page 213] Raymond Hilsman and Martin J. Quigley each applied to the Board of Trustees of the Public Employees' Retirement System for accidental disability retirement benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43. Each petitioner's application was denied, he appealed, and his appeal was heard before an administrative law judge. In Hilsman's case, the administrative law judge recommended a decision in favor of the petitioner, but the Board of Trustees of the Public Employees' Retirement System declined to follow the judge's recommendation, and it reached a final administrative decision denying accidental disability benefits.
In Quigley's case, the administrative law judge recommended denying accidental disability benefits and the Board accepted his decision. The petitioners appeal those final administrative determinations to this court.
Benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43, which are substantially higher than ordinary disability retirement benefits, are available to an otherwise eligible employee only if that "employee is permanently and totally disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event" which has occurred as the result of his employment. Ibid. Hilsman's and Quigley's petitions were each denied because the event which caused his disability was not a "traumatic event" and because even if the event was "traumatic", the disability was not the "direct result" of that event as those terms are used in the statute.
Although Hilsman's and Quigley's cases involve different facts and were not consolidated either before the PERS Board or before this Court, we have consolidated these matters for the purpose of this opinion. We deal with both cases together because they both require us to interpret the meaning of, and to apply, "traumatic event" and "direct result" as those terms are used in N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43. We approach the task in the light of several recent decisions of the New Jersey Supreme Court, including Maynard v. Board of Trustees, 113 N.J. 169 (1988); Ciecwisz v. Board of Trustees, 113 N.J. 180 (1988); and Kane v. Board of Trustees, Police & Firemen's Ret., 100 N.J. 651 (1985).
On February 15, 1985, Raymond Hilsman was employed as a truck driver by the Jersey City Board of Education, and was delivering furniture and packages to a Jersey City high school. When he arrived at the school, he and two other men parked their truck next to a curb and a flight of approximately twenty steps leading up to the entrance to the school. After parking the truck, Hilsman began to carry the chairs, tables and packages
from the front to the rear of the truck. From there he handed them down to the two men standing on the ground. As he was carrying a stack of chairs and several packages toward the rear of the truck for unloading, he went to step onto the tailgate before starting the hydraulic lift to lower the tailgate to the ground. However, without Mr. Hilsman's being aware of it, someone else had moved the control lever, and the tailgate was already descending. He stepped into space, lost his balance, threw the chairs and packages out of his arms and fell from the back of the truck, which was about five feet off the ground, onto the descending tailgate and from there onto the first few stairs leading into the school building, striking the railing as he landed.
On January 17, 1983, Martin Quigley was employed as maintenance worker for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. On that date he was assigned to wash a vehicle known as a "tandem rack" truck. The running board of the truck was approximately four feet above the ground. While washing the truck, he slipped on a sudsy solution and fell to the concrete floor, striking his lower back and causing what he described as "terrible pains" in his lower back area.
In both Hilsman's and Quigley's case, the first question is whether the petitioner suffered a "traumatic event" within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43.
The legislative history of the phrase, "traumatic event" as used in N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43 has been discussed in Cattani v. Board of Trustees, Police & Firemen's Retire. Sys., 69 N.J. 578, 583 (1976) and the cases cited therein. See also Maynard v. Board of Trustees, 113 N.J. 169, 172 (1988). The only insight which that legislative history yields is that "the inclusion of the word 'traumatic event' was 'intended to make the granting of an accidental disability pension more difficult.'" Maynard v. Board of Trustees, supra, at 172, quoting Cattani v. Board of Trustees, Police & Firemen's Retire. Sys., supra 69 N.J. at 584.
Precisely which kinds of work related accidents are, and which are not, "traumatic events" within the meaning of the statute is not self-evident from the statutory language itself, and court decisions on the issue have been inconsistent. For example, in Gerba v. Public Employees' Retire. Sys. Trustees, 83 N.J. 174 (1980), an employee claiming accidental disability benefits had been struck and knocked down by a truck and a load of pallets had fallen on him, and at a later date he had slipped on an oil spot or spill and had fallen against a parked truck, striking his lower back. Although the court held against the employee on the ground that his disability was not the "direct result" of either of those incidents, it viewed each of them as a 'traumatic event' within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43. Id. at 188. Similarly, in Korelnia v. Pub. Employees' Retire. Sys. Trustees, 83 N.J. 163 (1980), the Court held that when an employee who was loading a fire extinguisher onto a station wagon slipped, jumped back from the extinguisher in order not to get hit and struck his spine on the tailgate of the stationwagon, the fall was a "traumatic event." Id. at 166. However, in Maynard v. Board of Trustees, 113 N.J. 169 (1988), the court held that a teacher who sustained serious injuries as a result of slipping and falling on a highly polished school floor, striking the back of the right side of her head on a bench and then landing on the floor on her back, did not suffer a "traumatic event." Id. ...