In our view, the Illinois Appellate Court, Workers’ Compensation Division issued a ruling that appears to contradict the last ruling from the Illinois Supreme Court on the “manifest weight of the evidence” rule. In Sisbro and Twice Over Clean, our Supreme Court issued a clarion call to the reviewing courts below on factual issues. They basically said whatever the Workers’ Compensation Commission finds with regard to the facts is the final ruling—don’t supplant factual determinations with your own views on appeal. In reaching this conclusion, the Supreme Court reversed two denials by the Appellate Court and provided benefits to injured workers.
Now, for the second time since the above-named rulings of the Supreme Court, the Appellate Court, Workers’ Compensation Division has reversed denials by the Commission on the facts. In our view, the members of the Court’s majority have supplanted their view of the facts over the ruling by the Commission below. We again feel the entire IL WC business community continues to ask the rhetorical question of whether the “manifest weight of the evidence” rule actually applies only in situations to insure benefits are uniformly awarded. We have never seen the Appellate Court rule to reverse a claim on the “manifest weight” to deny benefits. We are also pretty confident the taxpayers of Will County aren’t thrilled to see a sworn peace officer awarded substantial WC benefits in a situation in which he was acting in derogation of duty and could have threatened the safety of other officers and the public.
In Johnson v. IWCC, (No. 2-10-0418, issued August 15, 2011), a 3-member majority of the Workers’ Compensation Division of the Illinois Appellate Court found injuries sustained by a Will County deputy sheriff compensable under the IL WC Act despite his having been in violation of clear rules of employment. Will County deputy sheriffs are prohibited by their Code of Conduct from leaving their designated patrol area or Will County without first securing a supervisor’s permission. There are numerous reasons for this rule, the most important of which is protection of fellow officers along with John and Jane Q. Public which is the sworn duty of all deputy sheriffs.
However, on July 20, 2007, the record on appeal indicates Petitioner left his patrol area and the geographic boundaries of Will County to attend to the personal errand of collecting his mail. Despite having a working radio in his vehicle, he did not obtain prior permission from a supervisor or otherwise notify anyone else of his frolic and detour from work. While collecting his personal mail in a remote location outside the county, Petitioner was contacted and dispatched to assist another deputy sheriff. Petitioner alone was dispatched with the understanding of the dispatcher that, if had he been in his assigned and expected patrol area, claimant Johnson would have been the closest deputy to the scene.
Petitioner did not inform the sheriff’s dispatchers he was outside of his patrol area or outside the County of Will. Over the call, Petitioner appears to have knowingly advised the deputy sheriff seeking assistance he would arrive in 3 to 5 minutes. In reality Petitioner was 10 to 15 miles from the scene, giving obviously incorrect positioning to a fellow officer, possibly endangering them. Petitioner testified at arbitration he did not provide dispatch or his co-worker his true location. The dispatcher testified had she known Petitioner was not in his assigned patrol area and was outside Will County she would have assigned the call to another officer.
While still outside of Will County and en route to assist his co-worker Petitioner was involved in a motor vehicle accident (MVA) when he entered an intersection against the light without activating his emergency flashers. Except for his personal deviation Petitioner would not have been driving through the intersection where he was injured. Petitioner sustained injuries to his person. He was eventually returned to full duty.
The Will County Sheriff’s Office disciplined Petitioner for leaving the County without permission. A Chief Deputy testified by leaving his assigned patrol area without permission Petitioner adversely impacted policing and public safety in that area of Will County.
In light of Petitioner’s violation of the Code of Conduct, engagement in a personal deviation, and failure to advise dispatch and his fellow deputy of his true location, the assigned IWCC panel denied the claim. We salute them for making the call as they saw it.
In reversing the Commission’s ruling, the Appellate Court, Workers’ Compensation Division found Petitioner’s violation of his rules of employment did not take him outside “the sphere of his employment.” They found there was only one possible conclusion from the facts.
We note Presiding Justice McCulloch joined with another justice to dissent from the majority’s opinion and noted:
The Commission also finds that the accident arose out of Petitioner’s own misconduct, rather than his employment. Pursuant to Section 25 of Respondent’s code of conduct, Petitioner was prohibited from leaving his assigned patrol area without securing permission from his supervisor. Petitioner violated this work rule when he left his assigned patrol area without permission. If an officer is outside of his patrol area when he receives an assignment from dispatch, he is expected to inform dispatch of his location so dispatch can assign another officer to the call. However, when Officer Schmidt assigned Petitioner to assist Deputy Kirsch, Petitioner failed to inform her of his actual location. Finally, when Deputy Kirsch contacted Petitioner to request his estimated time of arrival, Petitioner falsely told Deputy Kirsch that he would arrive on the scene within three to five minutes. In reality, Petitioner was fifteen minutes away. The Commission finds that Petitioner exceeded the speed limit when proceeding through the intersection of Route 59 and 75th Street against the light in an attempt to arrive at Deputy Kirsch’s location quickly enough to cover his own misconduct.
As the majority states, “an employee’s injury is compensable under the Act only if it arises out of and in the course of employment. 820 ILCS 305/2 (West 2006).” Will County and the Sheriff are correct. Claimant was engaged in a personal deviation that broke the causal connection between his employment and his injuries.
In our view, there are about fifteen facts which support the ruling of the Workers’ Compensation Commission. Therefore, with respect to the members of the Appellate Court, we consider it wholly incongruous for the majority to rule the “opposite conclusion is clearly apparent.”
The ruling is on the web at: http://www.state.il.us/court/Opinions/WorkersComp/2011/August/2100418WC.pdf. This article was researched and written by Matthew A. Wrigley, J.D.