Police Officers May Be Entitled to Accidental Disability Benefits for Witnessing Gruesome Events
September 28, 2018
Jennifer Vorih, Esq.
In a recent decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a police officer may be entitled to accidental disability benefits after witnessing three teenagers die in a car explosion that occurred less than two feet away from him. Mount v. Bd. of Trustees, Police & Firemen’s Ret. Sys., 233 N.J. 402 (2018).
Officer Christopher Mount worked as a police officer in Freehold, New Jersey, from 1996 until his retirement in May 2010. In early 2007, Mount responded to a serious motor vehicle accident. As Mount approached the vehicle, he saw smoke coming out as bystanders yelled for him to “[d]o something-do something.” Shortly thereafter, the car exploded and burst into flames. Mount called firefighters and EMTs, but he had no firefighting supplies or protective gear which would have permitted him to act on the matter himself.
Once firefighters arrived to put out the fire, Mount saw the dead bodies of the teenagers inside the vehicle. Mount saw that their “skin was melted, the clothing was melted onto the skin.” In describing his experience during the accident, Mount also said “The smell…of burnt flesh got into [his] nose; it got into [his] throat” and “Every swallow that [he] took had that smell and that taste from burning flesh.”
Mount alleged that he began to experience psychological problems after witnessing the incident, and that “something hit him,” but he “didn’t know what it was.” Despite this, Mount continued to work. In 2010, Mount was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). Mount left the police force shortly thereafter and subsequently applied for accidental disability benefits on the basis that the accident he witnessed was a disabling event and that he was mentally incapacitated to serve as a police officer due to his PTSD. Mount was denied accidental disability by the board of trustees of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System. The New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed this decision, finding that Mount had been trained to handle such a horrific event. However, in this recent decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that Mount had proved that he experienced a terrifying or horror-inducing event and that the event was “undesigned and unexpected.” The Court further explained that Mount “was not trained to combat, unassisted, an explosion of such magnitude experienced at such a close range. With no firefighting equipment or protective gear, he was helpless in the face of a terrible tragedy.” The New Jersey Supreme Court remanded the case to the Appellate Division to decide whether the accident directly resulted in Mount’s disability.
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