Argued October 15, 2014.
Approved for Publication November 25, 2014.
On appeal from the Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System, PFRS # 3-10-44221.
John D. Feeley argued the cause for appellant (Feeley & LaRocca, LLC, and The Blanco Law Firm, LLC, attorneys; Pablo N. Blanco, of counsel and on the brief).
Eileen S. DenBleyker, Senior Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent (John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney; Melissa H. Raksa, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Nels J. Lauritzen, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).
Before REISNER, KOBLITZ and HAAS
[438 N.J.Super. 347] REISNER, P.J.A.D.
James Moran, a firefighter, heroically saved two victims from a burning building by kicking in the building's front door. Although Moran suffered disabling injuries in this incident, the Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (Board) denied his application for an accidental disability retirement pension. Applying Richardson v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System, 192 N.J. 189, 212-13, 927 A.2d 543 (2007), the Board found that Moran's disability was not due to a [438 N.J.Super. 348] traumatic event within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7, because the incident was " not 'unexpected and undesigned.'" We disagree and reverse.
As background, it is helpful to begin with the pension statute, as construed in Richardson. Entitlement to an accidental disability pension requires proof that, " during and as a result of" performing " his regular or assigned duties," a member suffered a disabling injury " as a direct result of a traumatic event." N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1). To put these terms in context, we quote the statute's proof requirements:
the member 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 disability was not the result of the member's willful negligence and that such member is mentally or physically incapacitated for the performance of his usual duty and of any other available duty in the department which his employer is willing to assign to him.
[ Ibid. ]
In Richardson, the Court clarified the meaning of the term " traumatic event," stating that " 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." Richardson, supra, 192 N.J. at 212, 927 A.2d 543. The Court found that in using the term " traumatic event," the Legislature did not mean generally to raise the bar for injured employees to qualify for accidental disability pensions. Id. at 210-11, 927 A.2d 543. Rather, the Legislature intended " to excise disabilities that result from pre-existing disease alone or in combination with work effort from the sweep of the accidental disability statutes and to continue to allow recovery for the kinds of unexpected injurious events that had long been called 'accidents.'" Id. at 192, 927 A.2d 543. In making that point, the Court noted that " some of our cases failed to recognize that critical limitation in [438 N.J.Super. 349] purpose and persisted in the entirely wrong notion that the term traumatic event was intended, in itself, to more significantly narrow the meaning of accident." Id. at 210-11, 927 A.2d 543.
The Court then set forth the factors a pension system member must prove to obtain accidental disability benefits:
1. that he is permanently and totally ...