Supreme Court Changes Accidental Disability Pension Requirements

By Arthur H. Kravitz

The Supreme Court of New Jersey, in the recent decision of Richardson v. Board of Trustees, Police and Fireman’s Retirement System, has ordered major changes in the criteria applied for the granting of an accidental disability pension. The Court has replaced the traditional three prong test with a new five prong test which will make it much easier for the members of the Police and Fireman’s Retirement System, the Public Employees Retirement System and TPAF to receive the accidental disability pension for their disabling injuries.

A member was required to demonstrate that 1) his injuries were not induced by the stress and 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) the source of the injury itself was a great rush of force or uncontrollable power. The problem was that many accidents did not represent an external force or unstoppable power. The Pension Boards and the Courts could not agree on the meaning of the old test and for 20 years we saw chaos in the pension system. Before this decision, accidents which may have been as a result of falling down, or as a result of an altercation, were often rejected because the Board of Trustees of the Police and Fireman’s Retirement System decided that these injuries were part of the nature of the job, and, therefore, did not constitute a traumatic event.

The Supreme Court in overturning that view specifically pointed out that those accidents were just the kind of events that if resulting in disability will result in eligibility for an accidental disability pension.

Under the Supreme Court’s decision in Richardson v. Board of Trustees of the Police and Fireman’s Retirement System, an accident will qualify for eligibility for an accidental disability pension if it results in permanent and total disability, has a direct result of a traumatic event that is a) identifiable as to time and place; b) undesigned and unexpected; and c) caused by a circumstance external to the member (not the result of pre-existing disease which is aggravated or accelerated by the work), that the traumatic event occurred during the result of the member’s regular and assigned duties and not the result of willful negligence and results in mental or physical incapacity from performing the usual duties of the job. Here the focus will be whether during the regular performance of a job an unexpected happening, not the result of a preexisting condition alone, or in combination with the work has occurred, directly resulting in permanent total disability.

This represents a major change in the eligibility standards for the accidental disability pension. Gone is the need to demonstrate the level of force involved in the accident as is then need to show that the force commenced from someone or something else. By this decision, the Supreme Court has extended protections to Public Employees engaged in hazardous activities and has brought a new level of protection to the job.

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