Friday, May 31, 2019

Appellate Court Finds Firefighter with Heart Problem Eligible for PSEBA

Earlier this week, the Appellate Court found a former Skokie firefighter to be PSEBA eligible after he suffered heart problems when lifting a cardiac patient.

Firefighter Patrick Cronin had been diagnosed with a heart condition in 2012 but continued to work without restrictions. A year later, while assisting in transporting a cardiac patient, he felt tightness and pain in his chest, along with other symptoms of heart problems.   He ended up being transported to the hospital and a few months later had valve replacement surgery. He later applied for a disability pension claiming he had become disabled due to an occupational disease. He described his inability to return to work as resulting from his continued symptoms after surgery. This type of disability is characterized differently than a line of duty disability.

Despite his application, the pension board awarded Cronin a line of duty disability. He then applied for lifetime health insurance benefits pursuant to the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act. The Village turned down his request and Cronin filed suit. The arguments of the Village included that even if Cronin met the first prong of the eligibility test that he had suffered a catastrophic injury, he did not show a definitive link to his lifting of the cardiac patient.  The Village argued that Cronin’s disability was caused by an occupational cardiac disease which did not meet the catastrophic injury test for PSEBA benefits, which would then prevent him from claiming that he met the second (10(b)) eligibility prong that his injury was the product of one of four situations identified in the statute.

The court disagreed. It found that Cronin met the first prong of eligibility in that he was awarded a line of duty disability (despite not actually applying for that). It also found sufficient evidence that his disabling injury occurred on the day that he felt pain in his chest after assisting in lifting a cardiac patient, satisfying the second eligibility prong that it occurred during one of four specific situations, that being responding to what he reasonably believed was an emergency.

The problem for the Village and all other public safety employers is that once a pension board awards a line of duty disability pension, it is a foregone conclusion that the employee has suffered a catastrophic injury. What remains unclear is a true test for how an employee shows that the injury was caused when responding to what he or she reasonably believed to be an emergency. This is especially difficult in situations such as this one, where the Village argued that the disabling cause was his underlying heart condition. Ultimately, the court took a direct approach in its analysis, essentially finding that assisting a cardiac patient was responding to an emergency and given that Cronin suffered heart problems while doing that, it became the cause of his disability.

Employers should note again that it is important to monitor and often intervene in disability pension applications in order to help ensure that disabilities are characterized correctly.