Accidental disability pension benefits are paid at a higher rate than ordinary disability benefits and therefore, they are more difficult to obtain. In recent years, the Supreme Court decided several cases aimed at making the definition of accidental disability pension easier to interpret. In a decision last month, the Supreme Court was called on to apply this new definition and it ruled that a police officer who sustained disabling mental injures as a result of a fire rescue in which he was injured and the victim died is entitled to an Accidental Disability Pension, Gregory Russo v. Board of Trustees, PFRS (May 17, 2011).
The Court held that the Pension Board erred in interpreting the objective reasonableness standard as set forth in Patterson v. Board of Trustees, SPRS, 194 N.J.48 (2008). In Patterson, the Court established a high threshold for awarding accidental disability pension benefits based on purely mental stressors. The requirements include those set forth in Richardson v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, 192 N.J. 189 (2007) with the addition that a member is disabled “from direct personal experience of a terrifying or horror-inducing event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a similarly serious threaten to the physical integrity of the member or another person.” The Court stated that this standard eliminated the problem of “idiosyncratic responses to inconsequential mental stressors”. In Russo, the Court held that the Board erred by creating a hurdle that was not intended by the Patterson court and that once Russo established that he had experienced a qualifying incident, the objective reasonableness standard had been met. No comparison with the other officers involved in the event was necessary.
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