Appellate Court Upholds Denial of NJ Firefighter’s Disability Pension

The Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court has upheld the denial of an “accidental  disability pension” to a firefighter because his injury was not the result of “an undesigned or unexpected traumatic event.” Firefighter EMT John Karolinski suffered a rotator cuff injury on an EMS run.

According to the decision:

  • On this particular occasion, petitioner and his partner were dispatched to a call for a cardiac emergency.
  • Petitioner described the patient as a “[h]usky guy” and estimated that it took “at least six” people to move the patient from the floor to the stretcher.
  • Petitioner said the patient was “freaking out” during the ride to the hospital but that was common behavior.
  • Upon arrival at the hospital, petitioner transported the patient on the stretcher “into the emergency room and right to the cath lab.”
  • The EMTs and hospital staff were instructing the patient to calm down so they could take the stretcher’s straps off him.
  • They were also telling the patient not to move and that they would let him know when they were going to move him.
  • Petitioner stated that the patient began to move himself from the stretcher to the catheterization table that was several feet away.
  • Petitioner was able to grab the sheet on the stretcher before the patient fell and place the patient on the table.
  • Petitioner said the sheet was doubled which made it easier to move an uncooperative patient.
  • Immediately after lifting the patient, petitioner felt his shoulder burning.
  • He was later diagnosed with a rotator cuff tear and he underwent surgery. Petitioner did not return to his job.

To qualify for an accidental disability pension, Karolinski’s injury needed to be the result of “an undesigned and unexpected traumatic event.” The pension system’s Board of Trustees concluded Karolinski’s injury did not quality him for an accidental disability pension, but granted him an ordinary disability pension.

Karolinski appealed the Board of Trustees’ decision to superior court. The trial court agreed with the Board of Trustees, prompting Karolinski to appeal to the Appellate Division. In affirming the Board of Trustees and the trial court, the Appellate Division explained as follows:

  • The only element in dispute here is whether petitioner suffered an injury from an undesigned and unexpected traumatic event.
  • A traumatic event is one that was “an unexpected external happening that directly causes injury and is not the result of pre-existing disease alone or in combination with work effort.”
  • This requires “a force or cause external to the worker . . . that directly results in injury.”
  • The Richardson Court stated “a traumatic event can occur during usual work effort, but that work effort itself . . . cannot be the traumatic event.”
  • That is, an event is not undesigned and unexpected “when all that appears is that the employee was doing [their] usual work in the usual way.”
  • Petitioner testified he was injured while transferring a patient from a stretcher to the catheterization table, a job duty he had performed “hundreds of time[s]” and was trained to do.
  • It was petitioner’s work effort that caused his disability. He stated it was common for patients to be “freaking out.”
  • Therefore, it was not unexpected for a patient to be uncooperative during the transfer process.
  • Moreover, he testified the way in which he transfers a patient—using a double sheet—”makes it a lot easier to move . . . a patient that[] [is] not cooperating.”
  • It was not an “unexpected happening” that petitioner would need to help a patient to prevent a fall during a transfer.
  • Petitioner has not demonstrated there was an undesigned or unexpected traumatic event as required and defined under Richardson.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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