The purpose of the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (PSEBA) is to ensure the health benefits of public safety employees who have suffered catastrophic injuries in the line of duty. Nowak v. City of Country Club Hills, 2011 IL 111838, ¶16. Section 10(a) of PSEBA provides in relevant part:

“An employer who employs a full-time ***firefighter, who ***suffers a catastrophic injury or is killed in the line of duty shall pay the entire premium of the employer’s health insurance plan for the injured employee, the injured employee’s spouse, and for each dependent child of the injured employee until the child reaches the age of majority***. 820 ILCS 320/10(a).

The Illinois Supreme Court has defined “catastrophic injury” to mean an injury resulting in the awarding of a line-of-duty disability pension. Nowak, 2011 IL 111838, ¶ 12.

Section 10(b) of PSEBA also requires that the injury occur “as the result of the ***firefighter’s response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency.” 820 ILCS 320/10(b).

In the case of Heneghan v. City of Evanston, 2020 IL App (1st) 192163-U, the plaintiff Sean Heneghan was a firefighter with the City of Evanston. On June 10, 2016, he participated in a voluntary live fire exercise held at the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy (NIPSTA) in Glenview, Illinois. This exercise was part of a firefighter training course, and his attendance was approved by the Division Chief.

During the exercise, the live fire generated smoke and combustible particles. The teams combatting the live fire relied on Heneghan to ventilate the structure, letting heat, combustible gas, and smoke being generated by the fire to escape. Ventilating the structure helps to extinguish the fire by lowering the structure’s internal temperature an increasing visibility for het firefighters fighting the live fire. Heneghan, 2020 IL App (1st) 192163-U, ¶6.

Heneghan was instructed to pry up the cover near the peak of the roof. Heneghan’s teammate was instructed to use a saw to cut open ventilation holes in the plywood covers. The saw failed, and Heneghan was told to open the ventilation holes with his axe. He grabbed his axe from the ground, climbed to the roof, and began using his axe to open the plywood covers. Heneghan, 2020 IL App (1st) 192163-U, ¶9.

After Heneghan removed the first cover, he was directed to pry up the cover near the edge of the roof. The cover was easy to remove and gave no resistance. Heneghan’s momentum caused him to lose his balance and fall twelve feet to the ground. Heneghan, 2020 IL App (1st) 192163-U,¶ 10

Heneghan suffered bilateral calcaneal fractures, required multiple surgeries, and was permanently disabled causing him to be unable to work as a firefighter. Heneghan, 2020 IL App (1st) 192163-U, ¶11.

Heneghan was approved for a line-of-duty disability pension, but was denied PSEBA benefits because the City’s Safety and Workers’ Compensation Manager decided that Heneghan’s injuries were “not in response to what was reasonably believed to be an emergency” as required by section 10(b) of the Act.  Heneghan, 2020 IL App (1st) 192163-U, ¶14. The circuit court confirmed the decision of the city denying Heneghan PSEBA benefits, and Heneghan appealed to the appellate court. Heneghan, 2020 IL App (1st) 192163-U, ¶18.

The sole issue before the Appellate Court was whether Heneghan’s injury satisfied §10(b)’s requirement that the injury occur “as the result of the firefighter’s response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency.” 820 ILCS 320/10(b).  Heneghan argued that he was responding to what he reasonably believed to be an emergency when the saw failed during the exercise.

The court was not persuaded by Heneghan’s argument, and affirmed the decision of the circuit court upholding the City of Evanston’s denial of PSEBA benefits. The court held that Heneghan’s catastrophic injury was not a consequence of the failure of the saw during the exercise, based on the following:

  • The emergency that Heneghan described was the failure of the saw and his belief that the vent covers could not be opened. The emergency ended once Heneghan successfully pried open the first cover with axe. Heneghan, 2020 IL App (1st) 192163-U, ¶34
  • Heneghan could not reasonably believe that his fellow firefighters were still in imminent danger after finding a replacement tool. Heneghan also would have known that it was possible to open the vent with his axe. Heneghan, 2020 IL App (1st) 192163-U, ¶34
  • Heneghan was not injured because of his actions addressing the saw’s failure. Instead, he was injured because he miscalculated how much force would be necessary to open the cover, used too much force, and fell from the roof as a result. The loose vent cover did not create a new emergency. Therefore, Heneghan’s fall was due to his miscalculation of force, not from a consequence of the saw’s failure. Heneghan, 2020 IL App (1st) 192163-U, ¶35

The specific issue surrounding the failure of the saw was resolved, and the emergency had ended before Heneghan was injured.  Heneghan, 2020 IL App (1st) 192163-U, ¶37 Therefore, the appellate court affirmed the circuit court’s decision confirming the City’s denial of PSEBA benefits.

Takeaways:

  1. When applying for PSEBA benefits, a public employee should be careful and deliberate when describing the emergency that gave rise to the injury. What may be an emergency in one circumstance may not be an emergency in another circumstance. “The question of whether an emergency exists is not categorical but depends on the circumstances of the moment.” Pedersen v. Village of Hoffman Estates, 2014 IL App (1st) 123402, ¶ 58.
  2. The Act does not define the phrase “as the result of.” No Illinois court has expressly defined or construed that phrase as used in the Act. The appellate court noted that in the case of Marquardt v. City of Des Plaines, 2018 IL App (1st) ¶23, the appellate court wrote that the dictionary defines the term “result” as “[a] consequence, effect or conclusion” and equates the phrase “as a result” with the phrase “because of something.” However, the court declined to equate the phrase “as a result of,” as used in the Act, with proximate cause. Perhaps arguing that the removal of the vent covers constituted the emergency as opposed to the failure of the saw could have yielded a different result in this case? Maybe, maybe not.

 

***This case is a Rule 23 order published prior to January 1, 2020 so it is not to be cited for persuasive purposes. However, Rule 23 orders that are issued after January 1, 2020 can be cited for persuasive purposes. ***