A deputy sheriff [Plaintiff] severed a nerve and tendon of a finger when, during his shift he used his pocket knife to release the blade of his partner's jammed pocket knife. These injuries required surgical repair and rendered him unable to return to work for a period of time. Petitioner applied for benefits available pursuant to General Municipal Law §207-c, but that application was denied. Ultimately a Hearing Officer recommended the denial of GML §207-c be sustained, finding Petitioner's injuries did not occur in the performance of his duties.*
The Respondent's Director of Risk Management [Respondent] issued a determination adopting the Hearing Officer's findings and recommendation in its entirety whereupon Petitioner commenced a CPLR Article 78 proceeding challenging the Respondent's determination. Supreme Court annulled the determination and Respondent appealed.
The Appellate Division, noting that the administrative determination was made after a hearing at which evidence was taken "pursuant to direction by law," said that the appropriate standard of review is whether the administrative determination was "supported by substantial evidence."**
Explaining that the individual seeking §207-c benefits must prove a "direct causal relationship between job duties and the resulting illness or injury," the Appellate Division said that the unrebutted hearing evidence established that, although the pocket knives were personally owned by Petitioner and his partner and were not official equipment issued by the Sheriff's Office, "the officers were strongly encouraged to carry personal knives with them while they were on duty".
Further, said the court, the hearing testimony demonstrated that officers "were instructed during field training to obtain and carry a knife to assist them with various tasks, such as cutting seatbelts or cutting down people who attempted suicide by hanging" and that the officers were trained to use their personal knives "as a last-line of defense should they be stripped of their firearms or other weapons."
Noting that "most, if not all, officers" in the Respondent's Sheriff's Office regularly carried a personal knife, the Appellate Division said that the evidence "clearly established the utility of carrying a functioning knife while on duty and the necessity of fixing the jammed knife so that Petitioner and his partner could safely respond to their next call."
Under these circumstances, the Appellate Division found "a direct causal relationship" between Petitioner's job duties and the injuries he had suffered and that the Hearing Officer's findings to the contrary were not supported by the record.
Accordingly, the court granted Petitioner's application for General Municipal Law §207-c disability benefits.
* General Municipal Law §207-c provides law enforcement personnel with certain disability and other benefits, including full wages, while the officer is temporarily unable to perform the duties of the position as the result of an injury suffered "in the line of duty."
** The Appellate Division said as matter of proper procedure Supreme Court should have transferred the matter to the Appellate Division and although it did not do so it would treat the matter as having been properly transferred and consider the substantial evidence issue de novo.
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