Court Awards Enhanced Pension to “Heroic” Firefighter
By: Michael Booth
A firefighter who sustained career-ending injuries when he broke down the door of a burning house to rescue two people deserves an accidental disability pension rather than just an ordinary pension, a New Jersey appeals court has ruled.
In a published opinion released Nov. 35, a three-judge Appellate Division panel said the board of trustees of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System erred when it denied the firefighter, James Moran, the more lucrative accidental disability pension.
A retired firefighter on a routine pension earns 40 percent of his final year’s salary, while a firefighter who is awarded an accidental disability pension receives 66 percent of his final year’s salary.
Appellate Division Judge Susan Reisner, joined by Judges Ellen Koblitz and Michael Haas, said the board, which rejected a ruling by an administrative law judge, gave too narrow a ruling to the disability statute, N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1), when it determined that Moran’s injuries were “not unexpected and undesigned.”
“The legislature did not mean generally to raise the bar for injured employees to qualify for accidental pensions,” Reisner said in Moran v. Board of Trustees.
Moran’s attorney, John Feeley, said Moran deserved the enhanced pension because of his injuries.
“Too often, the board misapplies the correct standard,” said Feeley, of Feeley, Sayegh & LaRocca in Winfield Park, N.J. “Hopefully, this ruling will provide some clarity on the issue.”
Leland Moore, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s office, which represented the PFRS board, declined to comment.
Moran was a firefighter in Jersey City, N.J., when his company responded to a predawn fire at a boarded-up house that was believed to be deserted, according to the appeals court’s opinion. Moran’s job was to carry hoses into burning buildings and help extinguish a fire. A crew from another truck had the task of breaking into burning buildings if necessary.
When Moran’s crew arrived at the scene the house was heavily engulfed in fire. As he began unwinding a hose, Moran heard screaming from inside the house, the appeals court said. The other crew had not yet arrived and Moran’s truck did not have the required tools for breaking into the house.
Instead, Moran used his shoulder, body and legs to break down the front door, allowing two people inside to be rescued. Moran, according to the appeals court, testified that if he had not broken down the door, the two people inside the house would have died.
Feeley said Moran sustained neck, back and shoulder injuries that forced him to retire from the Jersey City Fire Department.
Firefighters are not eligible for accidental disability pensions if they are injured while engaged in their normal duties, if there is an aggravation of a pre-existing condition or if the injury was not unexpected or undesigned.
The administrative law judge said the injuries were caused by something out of the ordinary.
“But for the sudden and emergent circumstance, he would not have used and injured his body in entering the building,” the judge said.
The board, however, said in ruling against his application that using one’s body to force open a door was not an “unexpected happening” and that rescuing people was part of his job description. Moran then appealed.
Reisner cited a 2007 ruling by the state Supreme Court, Richardson v. Board of Trustees, in which the court said the accidental disability statute should be liberally construed. Until that ruling, the court said, other cases had been decided with the “entirely wrong notion” that the term “traumatic event” was meant to narrow the meaning of “accident.”
Reisner said the administrative law judge had reached the correct conclusion and noted that Moran also acted without having the proper tools at his disposal when he broke down the door. The board, she said, took an “unduly narrow view” of the statute.
“In this case, we are persuaded that in denying accidental disability pension benefits to a firefighter whose heroic response to an undesigned or unexpected traumatic event left him disabled, the board misconstrued Richardson and reached a result at odds with the legislative intent,” Reisner said.
“Had he not responded immediately to break down the door, the victims would have died,” Reisner said. “While this was not a classic ‘accident’ in the sense that the house did not collapse on Moran, nor did he trip while carrying a fire hose, it was clearly an unexpected and undesigned traumatic event that resulted in Moran’s suffering a disabling injury while performing his job.”
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