NJ trooper filed for disability pension after responding to crash in scary rain storm
Helping stranded motorists after an accident in a rain storm was not enough for a veteran state trooper to retire on accidental disability, a state appellate court ruled Wednesday.
While John Hodge, a member of the State Police since 1987, did qualify for regular disability after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression because of this and other incidents, the court said he did not meet the stricter standards for accidental disability, which would have given him access to more valuable pension payments.
Hodge was dispatched on Oct. 27, 2007 to help victims of an accident on I-80 in what he described as a "blinding rain storm." In his application for disability, Hodge said he feared he would be hit by oncoming traffic that could not see him because of a curve in the road and rain.
Hodge also claimed he had previously used his supply of flares in prior crash responses and did not receive backup in a timely manner to help better manage the situation. A tow truck did eventually report to the scene, as did other troopers, but Hodge said, "During that time I feared for my safety."
In the application, Hodge cited other examples of alleged harassment by his supervisor, all of which contributed to his not returning to work. Originally, Hodge was approved by the State Police Retirement System for permanent disability, which pays out less money than an accidental disability pension.
The board ruled the incident was "not undesigned, and unexpected," and "the disability did not result from direct personal experience of a terrifying or horror-inducing event" that could have been deemed as qualifying for accidental disability.
The case was appealed to an administrative law judge who deemed that Hodge did in fact qualify for accidental disability, saying the October incident "was out of the ordinary range of traffic stops, and was both undesigned and unexpected."
Despite this ruling, the pension system's Board of Trustees went against the judge and decided he was "performing the usual work of his job description in the usual way and did not encounter a traumatic event that was undesigned and unexpected."
Citing prior cases, the appellate court said it would hold up the determination of the retirement system.
The court noted in its decision that the events of the day in question were "within the context of Hodge's training and experience."
Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com