Accidental disability retirement – determining proximate cause

Accidental disability retirement – determining proximate causeSepanara v NYS Employees' Retirement System, 272 AD2d 830 City of Johnstown police officer Michael C. Sepanara, claiming that he was permanently disabled as a result of a line-of-duty injury, filled applications for accidental and performance of duty disability retirement benefits. According to the facts set out in the Appellate Division's decision, Sepanara was on duty when he stumbled and fell on a broken piece of asphalt in an eroding parking lot, allegedly sustaining neck, wrist and back injuries. Sepanara testified at the hearing held by the Retirement System and he and the System elected to rely upon medical records presented at the hearing. The Retirement System conceded that Sepanara was disabled — but concluded that neither his slipping or falling in the parking lot was the cause of his disability. Essentially the System decided that Sepanara's disability was the sole result of a preexisting degenerative back condition. The Comptroller agreed and denied Sepanara's applications for disability retirement benefits. Sepanara sued, seeking to overturn the Comptroller's determination. The Appellate Division affirmed the Comptroller's ruling, holding that Sepanara failed to sustain his burden of proving that his permanent disability was the natural and proximate result of the April 1995 accident. The court pointed out that the relevant medical records indicated that Sepanara began experiencing neck and shoulder pain in the 1980s and was diagnosed with degenerative cervical abnormalities and arthritis in his neck as early as 1988. In addition, the System's medical experts, after examining Sepanara and reviewing his medical history, concluded that his chronic degenerative disc disease and arthritis of the cervical spine were the sole cause of [his] disability and that these conditions were completely unrelated to the April 1995 accident nor were they aggravated by that accident. While there was medical evidence that could support a finding that Sepanara's April 1995 accident was the proximate cause of his disability, it was within the Comptroller's authority to evaluate the conflicting medical opinions and to resolve the dispute by according greater weight to the considered opinions offered by [the System's] experts than to those offered by the other experts.

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