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Mazza v. Board of Trustees

December 18, 1995

DENNIS MAZZA, PETITIONER-APPELLANT
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES, POLICE AND FIREMEN'S RETIREMENT SYSTEM, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Pollock, O'hern and Garibaldi join in this Per Curiam opinion. Justice Handler filed a separate Dissenting opinion in which Justice Stein joins. Justice Coleman did not participate.

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

DENNIS MAZZA V. BOARD OF TRUSTEES, POLICE AND FIREMEN'S RETIREMENT SYSTEM (A-21-95)

Argued September 26, 1995 - Decided December 18, 1995

PER CURIAM

Dennis Mazza, a park patrolman for the Essex County Park Commission for over sixteen years, seeks accidental disability benefits for an injury that occurred while on mounted patrol in the South Mountain Reservation. As Mazza was attempting to cross a stream, his horse unexpectedly bucked and reared up," causing his body to twist in the saddle and suffer a disabling rupture of spinal discs. Officer Mazza's body went numb; he slumped over and lay on the saddle until his horse brought him back to the stable. The injury left Mazza permanently disabled.

Officer Mazza will receive ordinary disability benefits, equal to about forty percent of his average final compensation. Mazza seeks additional compensation up to an approximate total of sixty-six and two-thirds percent of final compensation if the disability is determined to be "a direct result of a traumatic event occurring as a result of...regular or assigned duties..."

Accidental disability entitles an injured or disabled employee to greater benefits than he or she would receive on retirement for an ordinary disability. To qualify for accidental disability, a member of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PERS) must: 1) be permanently or totally disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event occurring during and as a direct result of the performance of their regular duties; 2) not suffer the disability because of the member's willful negligence; and 3) be mentally or physically incapacitated from the performance of his or her usual duty or any other available duty.

It is undisputed that Mazza has established the second and third requirements for accidental disability benefits. The Division of Pensions and Benefits determined that Mazza did not satisfy the first requirement that the injury be the result of a traumatic event. Following the Report and Recommendation of an Administrative Law Judge empaneled to hear Mazza's appeal of the rejection of his claim, the Board of Trustees of PERS (Board) reaffirmed its original decision denying accidental disability benefits.

Mazza appealed to the Appellate Division. A majority of that court affirmed the decision of the Board. One member of the panel Dissented, reasoning that the ALJ had created an artificial form of disqualification for "lifting and twisting cases" and that, in this case, although Mazza was not thrown from the horse onto a hard surface, the violent twisting force of the large horse met the definition of a traumatic event because it clearly constituted a great rush of force or uncontrollable power and was not expected by the officer.

Mazza appealed to the Supreme Court as or right based on the Dissent in the Appellate Division.

HELD: Under the circumstances of this case, the twisting that was the source of Dennis Mazza's injuries was not a traumatic event entitling him to accidental disability benefits because it did not involve a great rush of force or uncontrollable power.

1. The Board and the Appellate Division did not create an artificial category of disqualification for accidental disability benefits, but rather found, under the standards of Kane v. Board of Trustees. Police &Firemen's Retirement System, that Mazza was not injured in a traumatic event that would entitle him to accidental disability benefits. (p. 3)

2. For an injury to arise from a traumatic event and qualify for accidental disability benefits, a worker must establish that: 1) his or her injuries were not induced by the stress or strain of normal work effort; 2) he or she met involuntarily with the object or matter that was the source of the harm; and 3) the source of the injury was a great rush of force or uncontrollable power. As found by the ALJ, the third factor was not satisfied on the ...


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