Under New Jersey law, public safety officers who suffer from an “accidental” disability are entitled to a higher pension than those suffering from other disabilities. In the case of stress disabilities, the rule is that the disability must result “from direct personal experience of a terrifying or horror-inducing event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a similarly serious threat to the physical integrity of the member or another person.”
Briane Washington was a correction officer for Essex County. On February 21, 2005, Washington was picking up an inmate at a hospital. On two occasions, the inmate spat on Washington’s face, and afterwards told Washington, “Now you have what I have.”
Though the County agreed that Washington was disabled as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the incident, it disputed that he suffered from an accidental injury.
An appeals court upheld the County’s decision. Citing the decision of an administrative law judge, the Court ruled that “there is no dispute that Washington had an overwhelming reaction of a fear of contracting HIV or AIDS as a result of the inmate’s conduct. However, in applying the objective reasonable standard where the focus is on the nature of the conduct rather than on Washington’s reaction to it, the inmate’s spitting saliva into Washington’s eyes and mouth, although disgusting, was not a terrifying or horror-inducing event. This is so even if the inmate had uttered, ‘now you have what I have.’ Although Washington heard rumors after February 21, 2005, that the inmate might have HIV or AIDS, on that day he had no prior knowledge of this inmate’s existence, no less his real or rumored medical condition. He had no information or basis to presume that the inmate had AIDS.
“In sum, although the event of February 21, 2005, gave cause for a degree of concern by Washington, it was not objectively capable of causing a reasonable person in similar circumstances to suffer a disabling mental injury.”
Washington v. Board of Trustees, Police & Firemen’s Retirement System, 2010 WL 3834606 (N.J. Super. A.D. 2010).
This article appears in the December 2010 issue