Thursday, March 21, 2019

Illinois Appellate Court Says Snow and Ice Did Not Transform Training to an Unforeseen Emergency

Even when conditions of a training are unforeseen, like the presence of snow and ice, an Illinois Appellate Court found that an injured police officer was not entitled to PSEBA benefits as a result of injuries sustained during that training.

In 2015, a Peoria police officer was participating in riot training. The officers were told to react as if an emergency situation actually existed. As the simulation began, the plaintiff in this case almost immediately slipped on snow and ice and fell to the ground, hitting her head. Rather than obtaining medical attention at that time, plaintiff said she continued with the training because they were instructed to treat the simulation as a “real life” emergency. She sought medical treatment the next day, but was never able to return to full duty. Following an administrative hearing held pursuant to City code, the hearing officer issued a decision denying plaintiff PSEBA benefits. Although the parties conceded that plaintiff had suffered a catastrophic injury, the hearing officer found the evidence did not “support a finding that [plaintiff] Beckman was injured while responding to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency because she encountered no unforeseen circumstances involving imminent danger to person or property.” The decision was upheld by the trial court and the plaintiff appealed.

The Public Safety Employee Benefit Act (PSEBA) requires that eligible employees show not only that the individual suffered a catastrophic injury, which is generally confirmed by the granting of a line of duty disability, but also that the injury is sustained in “response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency” under section 10(b) of the statute. The state supreme court has previously defined an emergency as “an unforeseen circumstance involving imminent danger to a person or property requiring an urgent response,” connoting the intent for that subsection to cover “life-threatening or dangerous situations” in an officer’s employment. The state supreme court has held in one case, that training exercises do not meet the definition of emergency, but held the opposite in another case where firefighters involved in a live fire training got their hoses tangled. When a firefighter sustained an injury while responding to the tangled hose problem, the court found that at that point he was no longer participating in a training but responding to an actual emergency because the tangled hoses were an unforeseen circumstance which could cause imminent danger. The plaintiff here argued that she was directed to react as if riot simulation were real so that she was, in fact, in a life threatening or dangerous situation and the snow and ice were an unforeseen circumstance creating imminent danger.

The 3rd District Appellate Court found that despite being told to treat the training as if it were really happening, the plaintiff knew it was a training. Further, the snow-and-ice covered pavement, although unforeseen, did not create and could not be “reasonably believed” to create, an emergency. This circumstance, in the context of a riot simulation under controlled conditions, created no actual imminent danger to plaintiff or her colleagues, requiring an urgent response.

Public safety employers should take heart that despite what seemed to be a trend of almost automatically granting PSEBA benefits, courts will examine the circumstances of an injury to determine whether it occurred in an actual emergency.