Court Rejects Argument That Officer Could Have Anticipated Injury

Written on 02/03/2024

Viktor Diaz worked as a police officer in Camden, New Jersey. On June 24, 2015, Diaz was on foot patrol when he observed what appeared to be a drug transaction. As he approached the two suspects, they fled in opposite directions, and Diaz chased who he believed to be the buyer. Diaz caught up with the suspect, and consistent with his training, “wrapped his hands around the suspect’s waist and attempted to tackle him.” Diaz was trained to be “square” when tackling a suspect, so that he would fall directly on top, resulting in a diminished injury risk for both. Diaz had tackled suspects in about 70 arrests in which the tackle was executed safely. In this instance the suspect spun and twisted out of Diaz’s way, resulting in Diaz “going to the ground at almost full speed,” with the suspect falling beside him. Diaz felt his shoulder pop out of place. Eventually he was unable to continue working as a police officer due to this injury.

Diaz applied for accidental disability retirement benefits and was denied because the injury failed to meet the requirement of being “undesigned and unexpected.” In other words, the retirement board determined that Diaz could have anticipated the suspect’s move to avoid being tackled. Diaz was instead granted ordinary disability benefits, with a reduced value. Diaz appealed and lost.

Diaz appealed again; the appellate court reversed, finding that the retirement board applied an improperly restrictive interpretation of “undesigned and unexpected.” The Court emphasized that the proper test is whether “during the regular performance of his job, an unexpected happening, not the result of pre-existing disease alone or in com-bination with the work, has occurred and directly resulted in the permanent and total disability.” Furthermore, “a reviewing court must carefully consider not only the member’s job responsibilities and training, but all aspects of the event itself. No single factor governs the analysis.”

The Court determined that Diaz was not disqualified from accidental disability benefits merely because he was capable of anticipating that the suspect might twist away from him during a tackle. Diaz’s injury was undesigned and unexpected, because (1) he did not subjectively expect the suspect to twist out of his grip; (2) the injury occurred during Diaz’s ordinary duties; (3) the injury was not the result of a pre-existing injury; and (4) Diaz was permanently and totally disabled. The Court reversed the Board’s decision.

Diaz v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, Docket No. A-3619-21, 2023 WL 7217192 (Super. Ct. N.J. App. Div., 2023).