Appellate Court Holds Riot Training Exercise Not an ‘Emergency’ for Purposes of PSEBA

Authors: Brad Stewart, Matt Marcellis

March 29, 2019

An Illinois Appellate Court held recently that a police officer who suffered a career-ending “catastrophic injury” while participating in a simulated riot control training exercise was not entitled to health coverage benefits under section 10 of the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (PSEBA). The Court opined that the injury occurred while the plaintiff was treating a training simulation as a real-life emergency which did not qualify as a true emergency as defined in PSEBA.

The plaintiff, a former Peoria police officer, was injured in February 2015 while participating in a mandatory riot control exercise. The exercise included a “briefing/classroom” session and a field simulation. After the classroom portion, while responding to the simulated riot, the plaintiff fell on icy pavement and struck her head. Fellow officers asked the plaintiff if she could continue, and she indicated that she could. The plaintiff completed the training and did not obtain medical treatment until the next day. In arguing that she should receive full PSEBA health insurance benefits under section 10(a), the plaintiff claimed that her injury was in response to what she “reasonably believed to be an emergency” under section 10(b). At an administrative hearing held pursuant to City code, the hearing officer denied the plaintiff PSEBA benefits.

Section 10(b) requires that, to receive the health benefits afforded by section 10(a), the officer’s injury “must have occurred as the result of the officer’s response to . . . what is reasonably believed to be an emergency.” In determining that what the plaintiff faced could not reasonably have been believed to be an emergency, the Court first noted that the Illinois Supreme Court has defined an “emergency” under Section 10(b) as “an unforeseen circumstance involving imminent danger to a person or property requiring an urgent response.”

The Court then analyzed two Illinois Supreme Court cases involving firefighters injured during training exercises. In the first, a firefighter’s hose became fouled during an exercise, requiring him to backtrack through live fire and smoke with zero visibility. The Supreme Court found the exercise became an emergency when the hose became entangled, stranding the crew with no visibility, water, or option of ending their participation. The second case involved a firefighter attempting a simulated “downed firefighter” rescue while operating with a blacked-out mask along a predetermined path with no live fire. If at any time the firefighter ran out of air, he was to terminate the exercise. Here the Supreme Court determined that no emergency existed and 10(b) was inapplicable, the salient factor being that while the firefighter was told to treat the situation as an emergency, no unforeseen circumstance arose similar to that faced in the first case and at all times the conditions were controlled.

The Court found the plaintiff’s situation was more akin to that faced by the second firefighter than the first. The simulated riot was preceded by a briefing which explained what was going to occur. Furthermore, the icy surface that caused the plaintiff’s fall, though unforeseen, could not be “reasonably believed” to create an emergency. This simulation, under controlled conditions, created “no actual imminent danger to plaintiff or her colleagues, requiring an urgent response.” Finally, the Court found it important to note that the plaintiff was asked whether she wished to continue the exercise after her fall, an option that would not be available in an actual emergency.

This case is important as it points out that PSEBA benefits will likely not be available to officers suffering serious injury during training exercises where no unforeseen emergency situation arises.