The New Jersey Supreme Court on Tuesday handed down a split ruling to two former police officers seeking enhanced benefits after being involved in traumatic events on the job, and in the process urged lawmakers to take a new look at the relevant statute and case law.
In a unanimous decision in two consolidated cases, the court ruled that a police officer who watched passengers burn in a multi-car crash could be entitled to enhanced retirement benefits. At the same time, the court said another officer, a hostage negotiator whose target was shot and killed during negotiations, was not entitled to enhanced benefits.
Justice Anne Patterson, writing for the court, cited the statute governing the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System and said a retiree seeking accidental disability benefits must demonstrate that he is “permanently and totally disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event occurring during and as a result of his regular or assigned duties.”
Patterson said the Legislature left it up to the courts to interpret that statute, which the court did, in Richardson v. Board of Review in 2007 and Patterson v. Board of Review in 2008. In Richardson, the court said the traumatic event must be “undesigned and unexpected.” In Patterson, the court said a successful claimant must have a “direct personal experience of a terrifying or horror-inducing event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury.”
The first case at issue in Monday’s decision involves a former Freehold police officer, Christopher Mount, who was one of the first responders to a deadly car accident on Jan. 7, 2010. When he arrived, there were no signs of life, the cars were in flames and he saw an arm hanging outside the window of one car, according to the court.
He had no firefighting experience and, as the flames grew worse, he said he did not approach the scene because he feared that his uniform would melt onto his skin. The scene, Mount said, was “ungodly” and that he experienced that “smell and taste from burning flesh,” according to the decision.
Appellate Division Judges Marianne Espinosa and Garry Rothstadt said he should not be awarded enhanced benefits because the result of the accident “cannot be unexpected.”
The second case involves a former Hammonton detective and hostage negotiator, Gerardo Martinez, who was negotiating with a hostage-taker named Donald Hoffman on April 25, 2010. Hoffman, 27, of Hammonton, who had led police on a high-speed chase after a robbery, was holding his family hostage and Martinez had been negotiating with him for about 12 hours when, suddenly, a SWAT team burst into the house, fatally shot Hoffman and then dragged the body into the yard in front of Martinez.
Appellate Division Judges William Nugent and Carol Higbee ruled that Martinez should be awarded enhanced retirement benefits.
Both Mount and Martinez claimed the incidents affected them to the point that they were psychologically unable to continue to perform their duties, and they retired early. They both sought accidental disability retirement benefits.
Mount appealed his Appellate Division ruling, and the state appealed Martinez’s.
On Monday, the Supreme Court reversed in each case.
“We hold that Mount has proven that he experienced a terrifying or horror-inducing even that meets the standard of Patterson and that the event was undesigned and unexpected within the meaning of Richardson,” Patterson said. “With no firefighting equipment or protective gear, he was helpless in the face of a terrible tragedy.”
Martinez, Patterson said, met the standard set in Patterson, but not in Richardson.
“Martinez had reason to anticipate that, without prior warning to him, a tactical entry might be made into the house,” Patterson said. “Martinez had every reason to expect that the next step would be the tactical team’s entry into the home.”
Patterson suggested that the Legislature review its statute and prior court rulings.
“Additional guidance from the Legislature would assist retirement system members, boards, and counsel as they consider applications for benefits, and our courts as they review these important determinations,” she said.
M. Scott Tashjy, who heads a firm in Manasquan, represented Mount. He said in an email that the decision “serves to expand the definition of what constitutes an ‘undesigned and unexpected’ incident under the Richardson standard for defining a ‘traumatic event’ for purposes of an Accidental Disability Retirement Pension.”
He added that it “expands the required analysis for the Board and the Court, and … reaffirms that each case must be decided based upon all relevant factors and the member’s job description and training can no longer be used as automatic exclusionary criteria.”
Louis Barbone of Jacobs & Barbone in Atlantic City represented Martinez. He didn’t return a call seeking comment on the decision.
Leland Moore, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, which represented the PFRS, said officials there had no comment.