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Thomas Shappell v. Board of Trustees


July 18, 2012


On appeal from the Board of Trustees, Public Employees Retirement System, Docket No. PERS# 2-10-243754.

Per curiam.


Submitted May 1, 2012 Before Judges Messano and Kennedy.

Thomas Shappell appeals from the final administrative decision of the Board of Trustees (the Board) of the Public Employees' Retirement System (PERS) which adopted, with limited modification, the findings and conclusions of the administrative law judge (ALJ) denying Shappell accidental disability retirement benefits. The facts are essentially undisputed.

Shappell was employed as a senior corrections officer at the Edna Mahon Correctional Facility in Clinton. For five years prior to September 5, 2007, he was assigned exclusively to the "upholstery shop" where inmates refurbished furniture. On that day, Shappell observed an inmate trying to place a "decorative nail" in a piece of furniture with a hammer. She was having difficulty so Shappell demonstrated the proper technique, which required "start[ing the nail] with [his] thumb" prior to using the hammer. When he pushed the nail, Shappell felt a "sharp pain" in his left thumb and immediately stopped. The pain became worse after he left work, and the digit swelled and "turned red in color" that evening.

An MRI performed in October 2007 revealed that Shappell had suffered a "[c]omplete disruption of the first MCP joint ulnar collateral ligament along with radial collateral ligament sprain and marrow edema of the proximal end of the first proximal phalanx." Surgery was performed in December, and Shappell applied for accidental disability retirement benefits in June 2008, claiming he was disabled as a result of the incident. See N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43 (permitting a member of PERS to retire "on an accidental disability allowance" if "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").

The Board preliminarily denied Shappell's request and the matter was transferred to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) as a contested case. However, before the hearing took place, at its January 20, 2010 meeting, the Board reconsidered the denial and concluded that Shappell was in fact "totally and permanently disabled from the performance of his job duties as a direct result of the" September 2007 incident. However, the Board advised Shappell that he was approved only for ordinary disability retirement benefits, effective January 1, 2009. See N.J.S.A. 43:15A-42 (permitting a member of PERS to retire on "ordinary disability" when the Board's physician determines he is "physically or mentally incapacitated for the performance of duty and should be retired"). Shappell requested a hearing before the ALJ, which took place on June 28, 2010.

At the hearing, the Board conceded that Shappell was totally and permanently disabled as a result of the 2007 incident. The dispute, therefore, was limited to whether his disability was the "direct result of a traumatic event that [wa]s . . . undesigned and unexpected." Richardson v. Bd. of Trs., Police & Firemen's Ret. Sys., 192 N.J. 189, 212 (2007).

After hearing Shappell's testimony, the ALJ concluded:

[T]here was no undesigned and unexpected event, but only an unanticipated consequence of Shappell's normal work effort. Oversimplified, there was no traumatic event because there was no accident. Injury alone does not dictate the conclusion that an accident occurred. An unanticipated injury did occur but it was not the result of an unexpected happening.

He affirmed the grant of ordinary disability benefits to Shappell, but denied his application for accidental disability benefits. Shappell appealed to the Board.

At its January 19, 2011 meeting, the Board accepted and affirmed the ALJ's findings and conclusion, modifying them only to include Shappell's admission during his testimony "that the particular work effort that disabled him was no different from work he had done repeatedly in the past, except that in this instance he was injured." This appeal followed.

Shappell contends that the Board's decision misapplied the holding in Richardson, supra, 192 N.J. at 214. We have considered the argument in light of the record and applicable legal standards. We conclude the Board's decision was supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record as a whole, and Shappell's argument lacks sufficient merit to warrant extensive discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(D) and (E). We add only the following.

In Richardson, supra, 192 N.J. at 212, the Court clarified that to be eligible for accidental disability retirement benefits, a member must be permanently disabled "as a direct result of a traumatic event that is . . . identifiable as to time and place, . . . undesigned and unexpected, and . . . caused by a circumstance external to the member (not the result of pre-existing disease that is aggravated or accelerated by the work)." "[A] traumatic event is essentially the same as what we historically understood an accident to be -- an unexpected external happening that directly causes injury and is not the result of pre-existing disease alone or in combination with work effort." Ibid.

After providing examples of circumstances that met, and failed to meet, these criteria, id. at 213-14, the Richardson Court determined that the petitioner in that case was eligible because "[w]hile performing the regular tasks of his job as a corrections officer, subduing an inmate, Richardson was thrown to the floor and hyperextended his wrist." Id. at 214. In short, the need to subdue the inmate was "undesigned and unexpected," and the petitioner's injury was caused by a "circumstance external to the member," i.e., being thrown to the floor during the struggle, causing his wrist to hyperextend. See id. at 212, 214.

Here, Shappell was injured while pressing a decorative nail into a piece of furniture. The event was not "undesigned and unexpected" because Shappell was doing exactly what he intended to do. We reject the argument that the event was "undesigned and unexpected" because Shappell did not anticipate his thumb would be injured. Whether an event is "undesigned and unexpected" cannot be judged solely by the result because employees do not expect to be injured doing the routine tasks of their job. Rather, whether a traumatic event is "undesigned and unexpected" must be determined in the context of what Shappell was doing at the time and the nature of his job duties in general.

Shappell relies upon the following passage from Russo v. Teachers' Pension & Annuity Fund, 62 N.J. 142, 154 (1973), for support:

In ordinary parlance, an accident may be found either in an unintended external event or in an unanticipated consequence of an intended external event if that consequence is extraordinary or unusual in common experience.

Shappell argues that the ALJ concluded his injury was an "unanticipated consequence" of his normal work duties, and, therefore he qualifies. In our view, injuring one's finger while refurbishing furniture is not "extraordinary or unusual in common experience." Ibid.



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