Officer’s Experience With Death And Decaying Bodies Defeats Disability Claim

Written on 08/06/2022
Victoria Leyva

Barry Mesmer was a police officer with the Township of Evesham, New Jersey. On February 14, 2016, Mesmer was dispatched in response to a call re­garding a potential suicide. Based on the address, Mesmer knew he was driving to the home of M.H., an Evesham Town­ship firefighter. Mesmer described his relationship with M.H. as professional, but stated they were not close friends.

When Mesmer arrived at M.H.’s house, a woman and her son ran out, screaming “he’s inside, he shot himself.” Inside the house, Mesmer saw a white dog splattered with blood and M.H. propped against the fireplace with a shotgun un­der his leg and his head blown off. He also saw brain matter everywhere and smelled the strong odor of gunpowder and blood.

Mesmer’s supervisor instructed Mesmer to stay with the body to prevent the scene from contamination. Mesmer did not touch the body, nor did he see the body being removed from the house. After the body was removed, Mesmer was assigned to comfort M.H.’s wife and son. He also transported M.H.’s daughter to the police station.

After completing his shift that day, Mesmer felt depressed and had trouble disassociating from the incident. When he returned to work two days later, Mes­mer attended a debriefing to discuss the incident. Mesmer did not speak during the debriefing because he felt uncom­fortable discussing his feelings in the aftermath of M.H.’s suicide. Mesmer told his supervisor he was sleeping poorly, experiencing flashbacks, and reliving the incident. A chaplain sent Mesmer home and recommended he take time off from work.

After the incident, Mesmer saw a psychiatrist. When Mesmer returned to work, he performed clerical jobs and used headphones to help him focus on work tasks. Although he attempted to return to his normal work routine, Mesmer concluded he was unable to continue working as a police officer.

In June 2017, more than one year after M.H.’s suicide, Mesmer filed for accidental disability benefits, alleging a mental disability. When his pension board denied his claim and instead awarded the lower ordinary disability retirement benefits, Mesmer challenged the denial in an appeals court.

The Court upheld the denial of benefits. The Court held that “accidental retirement disability (ADR) benefits require an employee demonstrate he or she is permanently and totally disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event occurring during, and as a result of, the performance of his regular or assigned duties. A claimant seeking ADR ben­efits must prove, among other things, that the disability results from direct personal experience of a terrifying or horror-inducing event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a similarly serious threat to the physical integrity of the member or another person. The experience must be undesigned and unexpected.”

While the Court did not dispute that Mesmer suffered a terrifying and horror-inducing event, it found that Mesmer failed to satisfy the unde­signed and unexpected requirements to warrant ADR benefits. As the Court put it, “Mesmer’s job functions as of February 14, 2016, included protecting accident scenes, preventing destruction of evidence, providing support at crime scenes, examining ill or injured persons, removing dead or injured persons from vehicles at crash scenes, communicating with distraught persons, and withstand­ing exposure to and dealing with stress involving incidents of suicide.

“Mesmer received training, both at the police academy and through the course of his career in law enforcement, in responding to situations involving graphic and gruesome deaths. Mesmer was not a rookie officer and, during his career in law enforcement, he responded to at least ten calls involving gruesome and disfigured dead bodies or serious injuries. Mesmer conceded he did not experience any disabling mental injury after responding to those deaths and he returned to work without incident after each of those events.

“On this record, we are satisfied there is ample credible evidence sup­porting the denial of Mesmer’s applica­tion for ADR benefits and the Board’s decision was not arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable.”

Mesmer v. Board of Trustees, 2022 WL 946070 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2022).

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