NEW YORK COURTS CLARIFY DEFINITION OF 'ACCIDENT' FOR DISABILITY RETIREMENT PURPOSESOctober 12, 2018
In New York State, police officers and firefighters who are rendered permanently disabled as the result of an on-the-job “accident” are eligible to receive a tax-free pension of 75% of their Final Average Salary. To qualify, the first responder needs to demonstrate that their work injury meets the definition of an “accident” as defined over time by New York State courts. An “accident” is a sudden, unexpected occurrence that was not a risk inherent in the work performed. For years, this definition of an “accident” has been fraught with ambiguity and has led to inconsistent decisions, many of which involve cases where the employee was injured as the result of a misstep or fall.
On February 13, 2018, the New York State Court of Appeals – the highest court in New York – decided two important cases involving applications for accidental disability retirement benefits. In Kelly v. DiNapoli and Sica v. DiNapoli, the Court ruled that it would no longer require injured workers to demonstrate that they were injured as the result of a hazard that was not “readily observable.” Previously, applications for accidental disability retirement benefits were often denied simply because the hazard that caused the disabling injury was deemed “readily observable,” even if the injured worker did not actually see it at the time of their injury.
Relying on the Court of Appeals’ recent decisions, the Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department – which also hears cases involving accidental disability retirement benefits – issued two decisions of its own that further clarified the types of injuries that could qualify for accidental disability benefits.
In Matter of Stancarone v. DiNapoli (April 26, 2018) the Third Department, following the precedent set by the Court of Appeals, held that it would no longer deny accidental disability retirement benefits simply because the cause of the injury was “readily observable.” Instead, if a person is rendered permanently disabled as a result of, for example, slipping on a wet floor that was readily observable, this could qualify for accidental disability retirement benefits. However, the Court also ruled that injuries caused by “reasonably anticipated” hazards, such as those that were already known to the injured worker, would not qualify for accidental disability retirement. Likewise, injuries caused by a person’s own inattentiveness or “clumsiness” do not constitute “accidental” injuries for purposes of the Retirement & Social Security Law.
Finally, in Daquino v. DiNapoli (May 3, 2018), the Third Department ruled that the New York State Police & Fire Retirement System erroneously denied an application for accidental disability retirement benefits simply because the police officer failed to show that the hazard which caused her to slip and fall was not “readily observable.”
As always, whether an employee has been rendered permanently disabled as the result of an “accident” is a factual matter that needs to be determined on a case by case basis.
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