Caminiti v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, A-1994-10T2; Appellate Division; opinion by Fuentes, P.J.A.D.; decided and approved for publication May 30, 2013. On appeal from the Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, Department of Treasury, PFRS No. 3-10-30333. DDS No. 25-2-0123 [32 pp.]
While Essex County Sheriff’s Officer Frank Caminiti was attempting to take into custody a man armed with a tire iron who was threatening a police officer, a hypodermic needle in the man’s pocket pierced his middle finger from the bottom through to the nail. The man was an admitted drug addict.
Caminiti was taken to the hospital, where he was prescribed an AIDS "cocktail" of four drugs and told not to have any saliva contact with his children for at least six months and to avoid all sexual relations with his wife until after he had had two negative HIV tests. The medications caused constant vomiting and dehydration and Caminiti eventually was prescribed a drug given to cancer patients to counteract the effects of chemotherapy and to lessen the nausea.
Caminiti’s emotional psychological condition deteriorated. He suffered from insomnia, nightmares and had thoughts of suicide. He became irritable and contentious and developed hypertension. He became apprehensive about responding to potentially dangerous incidents and made excuses to avoid searching suspects.
Eventually, he sought an accidental disability retirement pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1). The board of trustees of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System denied his application. The denial was affirmed on appeal.
While Caminiti’s petition for certification was pending, Richardson v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, 192 N.J. 189 (2007), and Patterson v. Board of Trustees, State Police Retirement System, 194 N.J. 29 (2008), were decided. Richardson held that to obtain accidental disability benefits, an applicant must prove that he is permanently and totally disabled, as a direct result of an unexpected traumatic event, that is identifiable as to time and place, caused by a circumstance external to the applicant, occurred during and as a result of his regular or assigned duties, and was not the result of his negligence.
Patterson held that to obtain accidental disability benefits for a mental injury precipitated by an exclusively mental stressor, an applicant must satisfy the Richardson standards and the disability must result from direct personal experience of a terrifying or horror-inducing event involving actual or threatened death or similarly serious injury that is sufficient to inflict a disabling injury when experienced by a reasonable person in similar circumstances.
Caminiti’s application was remanded for reconsideration in light of Patterson and Richardson. The board again denied it, finding that although he met the Richardson factors, he was not entitled to accidental disability under Patterson because the sole basis for the disability was psychological trauma from fear of infection, not an event that is objectively capable of causing a reasonable person in similar circumstances to suffer a disabling mental injury.
Caminiti again appeals, arguing that the board misapplied the standards in Patterson and Richardson.
Held: The board mischaracterized Caminiti’s injuries and erred in requiring him to satisfy the Patterson standard since that standard is inapplicable where a petitioner suffers both a physical and psychiatric injury. Its inquiry should have ended with an application of the Richardson factors, which it acknowledged Caminiti satisfied.
Caminiti argues that the board incorrectly required him to satisfy the Patterson standard rather than the factors in Richardson because he suffered physical trauma that required medical treatment that brings the case out of the category of exclusively psychological trauma and within the parameters of Richardson. He emphasizes that he suffered an actual physical injury in the form of an intrusion into his body by a hypodermic needle, which gave him an objectively reasonable basis to believe he was probably infected with a virus that the medical community at the time viewed as being inescapably lethal.
The panel disagrees with the board’s characterization of what Caminiti experienced as merely "being pricked by a needle." It also rejects the board’s dialectical approach to resolving the ostensible tension between Patterson and Richardson. The Richardson factors explicitly allow a member to qualify for accidental disability benefits based on being mentally or physically incapacitated as a result of a traumatic event. Neither Richardson nor Patterson restricts Richardson‘s application to members who became only physically incapacitated.
The panel says the Richardson method of evaluation recognizes that a traumatic incident may cause a member to suffer a physical injury that eventually heals but leaves a concomitant psychological injury that prevents him from performing his job. Such a psychic injury could impede his reactions while on duty and endanger himself, fellow officers, and the public. The board’s interpretation of Patterson leaves no room for its application to these scenarios and is, therefore, unsustainable as a matter of law.
The panel says the board’s insistence that Caminiti must meet the additional Patterson requirement ignores or undervalues that he underwent extensive medical treatment for his injury. His physical status, arising out of the incident, warranted a medical response to combat potential physical implications. The treatment created specific, medically anticipated, and extremely harsh effects on his body. The medical effect of the event triggered serious bouts of pharmacological intervention and a prolonged period of physical discomfort and recovery. The record does not support the board’s finding that his physical injury was "minor."
The board misinterpreted and misapplied Richardson and Patterson. Caminiti’s disability was not precipitated by "an exclusively mental stressor." In addition to the physical impact of the potentially lethal needle prick, he endured many weeks of physical discomfort associated with the medications prescribed to prevent the transmission of HIV.
The board’s analysis should have ended with application of the Richardson factors. The evidence provided substantial support for its conclusion that Caminiti satisfied those factors. The denial of his application for accidental disability benefits is reversed.
For appellant — Steven J. Kossup. For respondent — Jeff S. Ignatowitz (Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General; Lewis A. Scheindlin, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel).