Permanently Disabled Corrections Officer Denied ‘Accidental Disability’ Benefits

Bruce VanMeter was employed by the New Jersey Department of Corrections as a senior corrections officer and was a member of the Public Employees Retirement System. His duties included responding to “Code 33” emergency calls, which required him to run to the scene of the alert. While running to a Code 33 call in December 2010, VanMeter tore the meniscus in his knee. VanMeter underwent surgery, and his doctors told him he would eventually require a knee replacement. The injury left him unable to perform his duties as a corrections officer.

In August 2011, VanMeter filed an application for “accidental” disability retirement benefits. Under New Jersey law, “accidental” disability pensions bring higher pension benefits, and are available if the member is “permanently and totally disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event occurring during and as a result of the performance of his regular or assigned duties.” In order to qualify for accidental disability retirement benefits, a member must establish permanent and total disability as a direct result of a traumatic event that is identifiable as to time and place, undesigned and unexpected, and caused by a circumstance external to the member.

In January 2012, the Board of Trustees of New Jersey’s Public Employees’ Retirement System determined that while VanMeter was totally and permanently disabled and qualified for ordinary disability benefits, he was not entitled to accidental disability benefits because the event that caused his disability claim was “not undesigned and unexpected.” VanMeter appealed the decision to a New Jersey appeals court.

The Court agreed that VanMeter’s injury was not the result of an “undesigned or unexpected” event. The Court held that “the Code 33 call itself was not an unexpected event, as VanMeter routinely responded to such emergency calls on a regular basis. Moreover, VanMeter’s claim does not meet the traumatic event standard because he simply heard a ‘pop’ and felt a burning sensation in his knee while running to the Code 33 call. Although he now argues that ‘the wet surface was the unexpected condition that altered his day-to-day duties,’ the record does not support such a finding. Rather, in his testimony he candidly conceded that he was unable to recall whether any external condition such as a wet surface may have led to his injury or caused him to fall. No accident or undesigned and unexpected traumatic event occurred here. VanMeter’s leg simply gave out. Consequently, he is not entitled to accidental disability benefits.”

VanMeter v. Board of Trustees, PERS, 2014 WL6909429 (N.J. Sup. 2014).