On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 224 N.J. Super. 417 (1988) (Gable v. Board of Trustees of the Public Employees' Retirement System). On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division (Cook v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System).
For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Garibaldi, Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, and Stein. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Garibaldi, J.
These consolidated cases present yet another opportunity to examine the elusive concept of what constitutes a "traumatic event." Respondents Stephen Gable and William Cook, two corrections officers, claim they are entitled to receive accidental-disability retirement benefits under the Public Employees' Retirement System (PERS), N.J.S.A. 43:15A-1 to -141, and the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS), N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1 to -68, respectively. It is stipulated that both are totally and permanently disabled as a direct result of incidents that occurred during and as a result of their regular or assigned duties as corrections officers. Accordingly, the sole issue in each case is whether the incidents resulting in injury constitute traumatic events.
A. Gable v. Board of Trustees of the Public Employees Retirement System
Stephen Gable began working as a corrections officer at the Camden County Jail in April 1980. While employed there, Gable suffered spinal injuries on three separate occasions as a direct result of physical confrontations with violent, unruly inmates.
The first incident occurred on September 26, 1980. Gable had just broken up a fight between two inmates. As he walked one of the inmates back to his cell, the inmate suddenly and unexpectedly threw baby powder in Gable's face, "dramatically impairing" his vision. Gable testified that as he cleared his eyes, he heard a chair scrape on the floor. He thought that he saw the inmate coming towards him swinging a chair. In order to protect the other inmates as well as himself, Gable lunged forward and rammed his shoulder into the inmate's midsection, driving the inmate into a wall. At some point, Gable felt a tremendous pain in his back. Officer Joseph Charles testified
that he saw the inmate strike Gable in the middle of his back with a heavy wooden chair.
The second incident occurred on March 19, 1982. Gable was attempting to arouse a drunken prisoner who was sleeping in a holding cell. As Gable shook the legs of the inmate, the inmate kicked him in the chest, propelling him against a concrete cell wall. Officer Frank Schillig, who witnessed the incident, testified that the inmate "brought all the force of his body into the feet, hit [Gable] and drove him up against the wall."
The final incident occurred on August 10, 1982. Officers Gable and Schillig were "delousing" an incoming inmate in a shower area when the inmate suddenly tried to escape. As he attempted to run away, Gable grabbed him by the head and the inmate put his arm around Gable's neck. Two other corrections officers soon arrived. During the ensuing struggle, the four officers and the inmate collapsed in a pile on top of Gable. As everyone piled on top of him, Gable felt severe pain in his back.
As a result of his injuries, Gable underwent a laminectomy in January 1983, epidural spinal injections in June 1983, and interbody fusion in August 1983. In addition, he was hospitalized for severe spinal pain. In June 1985 Gable was removed from the police academy because he was physically unfit as a result of his back injuries. Consequently, he was forced to leave his job.
Gable filed for accidental-disability retirement benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43. The PERS Board of Trustees denied his claim, and Gable appealed. Because both sides stipulated that Gable had become permanently and totally disabled as a direct result of events occurring during the performance of his regular duties, the only issue was whether each of the three episodes in question constituted a traumatic event. At the hearing before the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), Gable testified that as a corrections officer his duties involved maintaining the security of the jail, maintaining the security of the inmates, and overseeing activity in the jail. He characterized
his job as essentially "babysit[ting]" for the inmates. Gable acknowledged that the inmates at the Camden County Jail often became unruly. Incidents involving inmate violence sometimes occurred as frequently as three or four times a day, although sometimes weeks passed between incidents. Gable testified, however, that most of the violence occurred between inmates. Only occasionally did it involve corrections officers. Gable acknowledged that the corrections officers at Camden County jail "certainly knew" that physical violence might occur. But he testified that they had also been told that "you're not hired as a punching bag." Moreover, Gable denied that the three incidents leading to his injury were typical:
As I stated previously many of the altercations when you arrive there its pretty well over. You might tell an individual to move, you're being cuffed. You take on no altercation. One occurred, but you weren't hurt. You really weren't involved. No, these weren't typical. Its not typical to be taken to the hospital.
Officer Schillig testified that corrections officers at the jail were aware of the possibility that they might become involved in altercations while subduing violent inmates. When asked how typical these events were, he testified that in his three years at the jail, he had been involved in only two or three altercations and that there were officers in the facility who never had been involved in an altercation. The ALJ concluded that each of the episodes was a traumatic event. The ALJ found that Gable had satisfied the three-prong test of Kane v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement Fund, 100 N.J. 651 (1985), with respect to each incident. The PERS Board of Trustees rejected the ALJ's determination, finding that only the March 19, 1982, ("the sleeping inmate") incident constituted a traumatic event under Kane.
The Appellate Division reversed and awarded Gable accidental-disability benefits. It concluded that the injury-producing incidents went beyond the normal stress or strain of a corrections officer's work effort, Gable v. Board of Trustees, 224 N.J. Super. 417, 423-24 (1988); that Gable had not voluntarily subjected himself to injury, id. at 425; ...