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Firefighter Granted Benefits After Denied Disability Claim

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Trenton, NJIn the world of wrongly denied disability claims, there are those that are understandable and those that seem to violate core foundations of right and wrong. The case of a firefighter who had a denied disability claim linked to an event in which he saved people’s lives would seem to fall under the latter category. The good news for the firefighter is that a state appeals panel found the denied claim “backhanded” and ruled he was eligible for benefits, but not before a process that was likely drawn out longer than needed, thanks to the denial.

The situation began, according to court documents, in early January 2010, when James Moran was dispatched with his engine company to a house that appeared to be deserted and was on fire. While on-site, but before the truck company could arrive, Moran heard screaming from inside the house, so he used his body to force his way through the door and rescued two people inside. In doing so, Moran injured his back. According to the lawsuit, the engine company’s role is to put out the fire while the truck company’s role is to gain entry to burning structures and rescue occupants, which leads to the basis for the denied disability.

A year after the fire, Moran applied for accidental disability retirement pension, but the pension board found that Moran’s injuries should have been the result of an unexpected traumatic event - the “accident” - which this situation, the board ruled, was not. Instead of accidental disability retirement pension - which would have made Moran eligible for around $63,000 a year - the board awarded him ordinary disability pension of around $38,000 a year.

Despite an administrative law judge siding with Moran, the board found Moran’s injury part of the normal carrying out of his job.

Recently, however, a three-judge appeals panel agreed with Moran and reversed the pension denial. In its decision, the panel noted that the board’s interpretation of the law was too narrow. The panel also took exception to the board criticizing Moran for not using an ax to open the door because the ax was on the truck and not accessible to Moran. Writing its decision, the panel noted that the combination of the company truck not arriving and the discovery of unexpected victims led to an “undesigned and unexpected” event, forcing Moran to use his body to kick in a door so he could rescue the people inside.

“The board presented no evidence to contradict Moran’s proofs that he encountered an unexpected life-and-death emergency for which he was carrying no tools,” the panel wrote. “The board did not present testimony from any other firefighter that, faced with the same situation, he or she would have gone back to the truck and looked for an ax, leaving the fire victims to their fate in the meantime.”

The case is Moran v. Board of Trustees.

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