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Estate of Terminelli v. Police and Firemen's Retirement System

New Jersey Supreme Court


April 1, 1997

ESTATE OF ANTHONY TERMINELLI
v.
POLICE & FIREMEN'S RETIREMENT SYSTEM

Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi, Stein and Coleman join in the opinion of the Court.

(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).

Estate of Anthony Terminelli v. Police & Firemen's Retirement System (A-111-96).

(NOTE: This Court wrote no full opinion in this case. Rather, the Court's affirmance of the judgment of the Appellate Division is based substantially on the reasons expressed in the majority opinion below.)

PER CURIAM

Anthony Terminelli was the Police Chief of the Borough of Washington. Chief Terminelli died on February 18, 1992, after collapsing at police headquarters. The death certificate listed the cause of death as cardiac arrest due to coronary artery disease.

Chief Terminelli was a member of the Police and Fireman's Retirement System (PFRS). His estate applied for accidental death benefits, claiming that his death was a direct result of a traumatic event that occurred on February 3, 1992, during the actual performance of police duties. The Board of Trustees of PFRS (Board) denied the application.

Chief Terminelli had suffered a heart attack in 1986 for which he was hospitalized and underwent cardiac catheterization. He was given various cardiac medications thereafter. He returned to work on a part-time basis three months after his discharge from the hospital, gradually increasing his hours. By February 3, 1992, Chief Terminelli was working a forty-hour week, was free of pain or discomfort, was walking three miles a day, and was apparently in good health, according to his wife.

On February 3, 1992, while on patrol car duty, Chief Terminelli apprehended a burglary suspect after a vigorous foot chase that ended when he tackled and subdued the suspect. Another senior officer testified that he observed Chief Terminelli clutching his chest and gasping for breath. The Chief thought he might have been kicked in the chest or fallen against a tree during the tackle. According to this witness and Mrs. Terminelli, the Chief's capacity, vigor and Disposition appeared to have deteriorated from that time until his death on February 18.

The Estate's expert witness, Dr. Eisenstein, opined that Chief Terminelli's death was a direct result of pursuing, tackling and subduing the suspect. The witness also confirmed that the death was a result of coronary artery disease as stated in the death certificate.

Following an administrative appeal, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an initial decision supporting PFRS's denial of accidental death benefits. The ALJ noted the restrictive judicial interpretation given to the statutory phrase "traumatic event." To be eligible for accidental disability benefits, an injured worker has to prove that: 1) his or her injuries were not induced by the stress or strain of the 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 injury itself was a great rush of force or uncontrollable power. The ALJ concluded that the occurrence of a "traumatic event" had not been established and that the Chief's death was the result of a preexisting symptomatic coronary artery disease that was aggravated by the February 3 incident.

The ALJ's decision was adopted by the Board, and the Estate appealed to the Appellate Division. A majority of the Appellate Division affirmed the decision of the Board, concluding that the findings of the ALJ were supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record. In adopting the ALJ's findings, the Board reasonably could have determined that the eligibility requirements for accidental disability benefits were not satisfied. According to the appellate panel, the evidence fell short of compelling a Conclusion that the application of an external great rush of force, which Chief Terminelli did not himself bring into motion, caused his death. The majority noted that the legislative criterion is not satisfied by proof of disability or death resulting from the aggravation or acceleration of a preexisting disease, even if unusual or excessive work effort is involved.

Judge Humphreys Dissented, finding the Board's decision that the incident merely aggravated the Chief's preexisting symptomatic coronary artery disease was directly contrary to the undisputed medical evidence. According to Judge Humphreys, the testimony of the doctor and the Estate's other witnesses overwhelmingly established that the traumatic struggle with the burglary suspect was the "essential significant or the substantial contributing cause" of the Chief's resulting disability and death. In addition, the Dissent viewed the majority opinion to be in sharp conflict with the Supreme Court's decision in Gable v. Board of Trustees.

By virtue of the Dissent in the Appellate Division, the Estate appealed to the Supreme Court as of right.

HELD :

Judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed substantially for the reasons expressed in Judge Landau's written opinion. The decision of the Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen's Pension System denying accidental death benefits to the Estate of Anthony Terminelli, by finding that his death was not the result of a traumatic event, was supported by sufficient credible evidence.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI, STEIN and COLEMAN join in the opinion of the Court.

19970401


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