On appeal from a Final Administrative Determination of the Board of Trustees of the Police and Fireman's Retirement System, Docket No. PFRS3-10-25479.
Before Judges Petrella, Braithwaite and Parker.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Braithwaite, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 10, 2003
Petitioner Joseph Esposito appeals from a final decision of respondent Board of Trustees of Police and Fireman's Retirement System ("PFRS"), denying his application for accidental disability retirement benefits. On appeal, petitioner contends that PFRS: (1) erred in not adopting the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") initial decision finding him eligible for accidental disability benefits; and (2) "was clearly mistaken" in not adopting the ALJ's conclusion when it adopted all of the ALJ's factfinding. We agree with petitioner and now reverse.
The facts leading up to petitioner's application for accidental disability retirement benefits are as follows. Petitioner was an officer for the Edison Township Police Department from May 25, 1984, to October 13, 2000. On November 10, 1996, petitioner was directing traffic for an event that drew a large crowd. During his shift, a vehicle sped toward him at approximately forty to forty-five miles per hour, and failed to yield. Petitioner had to jump out of the way to avoid being hit, whereby he sustained serious injuries to his knee, requiring surgery. Although petitioner claims that his leg was grazed by the car, the ALJ and PFRS found that there was no actual contact between the car and petitioner's leg. The finding that petitioner was not struck by the vehicle is supported by the credible evidence in the record. Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974). The injury caused petitioner to take three months off from work and upon his return he assumed limited duties in the traffic division.
On March 30, 2000, petitioner reinjured his knee while attempting to apprehend a suspect. Petitioner claims that the reinjury can be attributed to the knee's weakened condition resulting from the November 10, 1996, incident. Petitioner's reinjury necessitated more surgery. On April 13, 2000, petitioner applied for accidental disability retirement benefits.
PFRS denied petitioner's request for accidental disability benefits, but granted ordinary disability benefits. Petitioner contested that determination. The matter was transferred to the Office of Administrative Law as a contested case. Following a hearing, the ALJ determined that the incident that occurred on November 10, 1996, constituted a "traumatic event." As such, the ALJ concluded that petitioner was entitled to accidental disability benefits. PFRS adopted the ALJ's findings of fact, but rejected her conclusions of law. This appeal followed.
N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7 governs accidental disability retirement benefits. It provides that a member will receive accidental disability benefits if he is: permanently and totally disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event occurring during and as a result of the performance of his regular or assigned duties . . . and that such member is mentally or physically incapacitated for the performance of his usual duty. [N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1).]
To qualify for accidental disability retirement benefits, a member must prove (1) that he is permanently and totally disabled; (2) that his disability is a direct result of a traumatic event; and (3) that the traumatic event occurred during and as a result of his regular duties. PFRS rejected the ALJ's decision and concluded that the event that occurred on November 10, 1996, was not a traumatic event.
In Cattani v. Board of Trs., Police and Fireman's Ret. Sys., 69 N.J. 578 (1976), our Supreme Court recognized the legislative intent to limit the grant of accidental disability benefits when the Legislature amended the statute to require that an injury be "'a direct result of a traumatic event'" instead of it being naturally and proximately caused by an accident. Id. at 584. In Cattani, the Court concluded that a traumatic event required an "external force or violence." Id. at 586.
In 1985, the Court issued a decision in three consolidated cases, Kane v. Board of Trs., P.F.R.S., Canastra v. Board of Trs., P.F.R.S., and Minner v. Board of Trs., P.F.R.S., 100 N.J. 651 (1985) (herinafter Kane). The Court acknowledged that Cattani failed to elucidate the meaning of "traumatic event" and clarified that definition. Id. at 662-63. To comport with the legislative intent and in agreement with Cattani, the Court characterized a traumatic event "as one that arises in cases in which a worker involuntarily meets with a physical object or some other external matter and is [the] victim of a great rush of force or power that he himself did not bring into motion." Id. at 663.
The Court articulated a three-pronged test a petitioner must meet in order to be eligible for accidental disability benefits. A petitioner must demonstrate:
(1) that his injuries were not induced by the stress or strain of the normal work effort; (2) that he met involuntarily with the object or matter that was the source of the harm; and (3) that the source of the injury itself ...