New Jersey (Jarret Renshaw-Statehouse Bureau) – It was a blustery day in late October 2006 and Christopher Onseti, a New Jersey Transit police officer, was at a shooting range in Stafford Township. He was familiar with the range, and had already completed at least one firearm test there.
As he was preparing to shoot, a burst of wind tore a Q-shaped target from its wooden post. Onesti picked up a staple gun and tried to reattach the target — and what happened next could end up costing state taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Onesti, 27 at the time, accidentally fired a staple into the base of his left ring finger, records show. He put a Band Aid on the wound and successfully completed the tests. But after two operations Onesti says he still can’t do his job, and is now one of a record number of public employees across the state seeking an accidental disability pension for life.
The state will grant the most accidental disability pensions in its history this year, records show, having approved 537 through August. By comparison, in 2007 it awarded 402. In 2010, the state made $91.5 million in such payments to police and firefighters, a 35 percent increase from 2007, when it paid out $68 million.
The sharp increase came after the state Supreme Court in 2007 and 2008 expanded the types of injuries that qualify for accidental pensions, forcing the state’s pension boards to award them for disabilities ranging from mental illness to injuries sustained from slips and falls.
In 2010, the Police and Fireman Pension Board denied Onesti’s application, contending the injury resulted from negligence, not from an unexpected risk taken on the job. But an administrative law judge, citing the Supreme Court decisions, recommended that the board reverse its decision.
“How a judge gave an accidental disability pension to a guy who stapled his finger is amazing,” said John Sierchio, chairman of the pension board who has been critical of the ruling. “We should poll kids from kindergartens across the state to see how many have done the same thing.”
Another board member, Vincent Foti, said, “How about the doctor that said he can’t work?”
Their comments came seconds before the board unanimously — and in an unusual move — rejected the judge’s ruling, which Onesti can appeal in state court. He could not be reached for comment.