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James Brooks v. Board of Trustees

April 17, 2012

JAMES BROOKS, APPELLANT,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES, PUBLIC EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT SYSTEM, RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Board of Trustees of the Public Employees' Retirement System, Department of Treasury, Docket No. PERS #2-1158732.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skillman, J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Submitted March 19, 2012 -

Before Judges Parrillo, Grall and Skillman.

The opinion of the court was delivered by SKILLMAN, J.A.D. (retired and temporarily assigned on recall).

In Richardson v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System, 192 N.J. 189, 192 (2007), our Supreme Court concluded that the tests it had adopted in 1985 for determining whether a work-connected event that results in permanent and total disability constitutes a "traumatic event" that qualifies a public employee for an accidental disability pension had "resulted in confusion and created a body of law with no rational core[.]" Consequently, the Court rejected those tests and adopted a new set of tests designed to exclude "disabilities that result from pre-existing disease alone or in combination with work effort" from the award of accidental disability pensions, but "to continue to allow" [accidental disability pensions] for the kinds of unexpected injurious events that had long been called 'accidents.'" Ibid. The Court expressed its expectation that these new tests would "provide decision makers with a standard capable of consistent and uniform application." Id. at 192-93.

In this case, the Board of Trustees of the Public Employees Retirement System determined that a custodian who suffered a total and permanently disabling shoulder injury while carrying a 300-pound weight bench, when the other persons who were assisting him suddenly dropped their side of the bench, had not experienced a "traumatic event" under the new tests set forth in Richardson. We conclude that the Board misapplied those tests and therefore reverse the denial of the custodian's application for an accidental disability pension. We also conclude that the Administrative Law Judge's recommended decision in this case, which the Board adopted, reflects a need for further explanation of the Richardson tests, particularly the requirement that a work-connected event must be "undesigned and unexpected" to constitute a "traumatic event."

I.

Appellant James Brooks was employed by the Willingboro Board of Education as a custodian. One of his responsibilities, in addition to cleaning classrooms, was to move furniture and equipment around the school.

On July 24, 2008, appellant heard the principal over the loudspeaker direct someone to bring a flatbed truck to the front of the school. When appellant arrived in that area, he saw a group of teenage boys attempting to carry a large unwieldy weight bench weighing approximately 300 pounds into the school. Appellant had not previously seen this piece of equipment, which had been donated to the school, nor had he ever moved any other weight bench. Appellant told the boys to put down the bench while he tried to figure out how to get it into the gymnasium.

The boys put down the bench, and appellant removed a center pole in the door to the gymnasium to make the entranceway large enough for the bench to fit through.

Appellant then asked two of the boys to help him tip the weight bench on its end and lift it onto the flatbed truck so it could be brought into the gymnasium. Appellant and the boys began this maneuver. However, when the bench was "halfway up," the boys, who were watching the football team exercise, dropped their side of the bench. Appellant heard his shoulder "snap" as the bench fell to the floor, which resulted in a total and permanent disability. Appellant said he did not drop his side of the bench when he saw the boys drop their side because one of his feet was directly underneath the bench.

Appellant subsequently applied for an accidental disability pension. By a letter dated January 21, 2010, the Board of Trustees of the Public Employees Retirement System denied appellant's application. The Board determined that appellant was "totally and permanently disabled as a direct result of [the July 24, 2008] incident." The Board also determined that this incident "was identifiable as to time and place." However, the Board denied appellant's application on the ground that the incident was not "undesigned and ...


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