It is hard to truly blame this one on our courts. The Illinois Legislature and Governor have continued to bow to the demands of the wildly aggressive IL Firefighters Union and other public employee unions for years. In our view, this is another example of legislative inaction and ennui costing you and I millions in present and future taxes.
If you aren’t aware, sworn public safety employees such as police officers and/or firefighters in Illinois are entitled to lifetime “line-of-duty” disability benefits for injuries that do not prevent them from working and making money after leaving government employ. The legislature did a generally lazy job of not defining when a firefighter/police officer is entitled to such benefits—they used the quizzical term “catastrophically injured.” The legislature did nothing to further define this important qualifying term. Lots of folks might think “catastrophically injured” would and should mean the injured police officer or firefighter can never, ever work again in any capacity—in that setting a lifetime, line-of-duty disability pension makes sense to even the most conservative of our citizens.
Due to the lack of definition by the Illinois legislature, the courts took this ball and ran with it to magically define the term “catastrophically injured” to mean the police officer/firefighter can no longer work in their current public safety capacity, even if they can work in private industry and make a decent living at the same or higher wages than they made in public service. We are seeing lots and lots of liberal rulings where mildly injured public safety employees can retire early on great benefits due to what we feel aren’t truly disabling conditions, like the firefighter with the runny nose and watery eyes.
On top of that, what lots of folks also don’t know is a firefighter or police officer entitled to a line-of-duty disability pension may also qualify for lifetime family healthcare coverage on the taxpayers’ dime if a few factual requirements are met. In most parts of our state, this annual cost is probably well over $25,000 per year. For a forty-year-old firefighter, the projected lifetime cost to the taxpayers is well into the millions. Please also note we are not aware of any limitations on such coverage—a single firefighter entitled to lifetime family healthcare coverage might later apply for it for a second or third marriage and children who weren’t present at the time of their public service and injury. Again, the legislature didn’t rein it in and we can’t truly expect the courts to take action where our lawmakers are creating confusion and uncertainty.
In order to be entitled to lifetime family healthcare coverage, the firefighter has to injured responding to an “emergency.” Like the ambiguities above, the Illinois legislature was waaaay too busy tossing out our tax dollars to define “emergency.” So the question arises, what if a firefighter is injured during regular training but is told to act like it is an “emergency” when it clearly isn’t? How can you have an emergency in training when everyone knows it isn’t “emergent” but an exercise set up by management?
In Gaffney v. Board of Trustees of the Orland Fire Protection District, the Illinois Supreme Court considered two consolidated cases. Our highest court decided procedural and substantive questions arising under Sec. 10 of PSEBA or the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act. Both cases involved injuries incurred during routine firefighter training exercises.
Plaintiff Gaffney was injured in a live-fire exercise retracing the route of a hose in order to clear it from an obstruction. Plaintiff Lemmenes was injured in a simulation of fire conditions while wearing a blacked-out firefighter's mask. As their injuries were “career-ending” and incurred in the line of duty, they received line-of-duty pensions. In these cases, they also sought the additional benefits provided by Sec. 10(a) of the Act of the payment of future family health insurance premiums. The Circuit Court judge in Gaffney concurred with the denial of benefits by the fire protection district, and the Appellate Court affirmed. The denial of benefits by the Fire Protection District to Lemmenes was reversed by the trial court and the appellate panel affirmed.
PSEBA provides for these benefits in four factual settings. The setting implicated was if the injury occurred as the result of the firefighter's "response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency." The Act offers no definition or direction as to how the decision is to be made, nor does it provide for administrative review. The Supreme Court held the proper vehicle for judicial determination of entitlement to benefits is through an action for declaratory judgment. The action of the Fire Protection Districts was viewed by the Court as “an employer's objection to paying Sec. 10 benefits."
The Supreme Court majority concluded the meaning of "emergency" is an unforeseen circumstance involving imminent danger to a person or property requiring an urgent response. The Court noted public safety employees are required to respond to emergencies, "whether they are real or not." The majority concluded Plaintiff Gaffney injured in the environment of a “live fire” exercise was entitled to benefits but Plaintiff Lemmenes was not entitled to benefits in his non-fire setting, with no unforeseen circumstances.
Justice Garman's concurring/dissenting opinion raises numerous questions concerning both the statutory meaning derived by the majority and the application of the meaning to the facts of the cases. His opinion objected to the grafting of the entire definition of "emergency" from a specific dictionary onto the statute without, in the view of that opinion, further consideration of the full context of the statute as giving additional understanding of the intent of the legislature. His opinion would find the additional benefits to be proper when the firefighter is injured "while responding... to a circumstance that he reasonably believes poses imminent danger to another person or property and that requires an urgent response." Paragraphs 101 and 102 of the dissent indicate why this is potentially an enormous expansion of PSEBA. This decision can be interpreted to mean that an emergency can occur when a public safety officer is alone completing routine tasks, as long as it is “unforeseen” and involves a dangerous situation. The danger need not be a danger to the public, but need only be a danger to the individual public safety officer. Whether or not a danger exists is not determined by any objective criteria, but by the subjective belief of the individual involved.
With respect to the august members of our court, we are dissatisfied with the whole legislative and judicial process. The Illinois legislature and reviewing courts shouldn’t leave such issues open to interpretation—there is too much at stake. At present, it is our view it is going to be literally impossible to tell when a public safety officer might or might not be eligible for this multi-million dollar lifetime benefit. There is too much at stake to leave it all open to random interpretation. The only thing we can be certain of is lots of litigation and uncertainty and more costs to already strapped government budgets.
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