The recent case of Vaughn v. City of Carbondale involved the continuation of Public Service Employees Benefit Act (PSEBA) health insurance benefits for a police officer who received in the line-of-duty benefits after striking his head while trying to reach a radio in his squad car to respond to a dispatch call. The officer was eventually medically cleared to return to active duty, after which the pension review board determined him ineligible for continued line-of-duty benefits.

The officer challenged the termination of benefits to the circuit court, which affirmed the denial of continued benefits, but the appellate court reversed the decision, finding that the board had failed to provide the officer proper notice of the possible termination and an opportunity to be heard during the benefit-termination meeting.

While the termination of benefit matter was being appealed, the officer filed a separate action seeking to permanently enjoin the board from discontinuing his line-of-duty benefits. The circuit court determined that his injury was not catastrophic as required by the statute to receive permanent line-of-duty benefits, citing that the officer was able to return to work, as well as stating that he was not injured in a manner that warranted line-of-duty benefits. Line-of-duty benefits are awarded for injuries occurring during emergency response, among other situations.

On appeal, the appellate court held that the injury did qualify as being an emergency response. At specific issue was whether trying to respond to a dispatch was, in itself, an emergency response. The board argued responding to dispatch is a routine function that does not frequently involve any emergency situation, and no evidence presented suggested the officer was actually responding to an emergency when he struck his head. The court disagreed based on previous case law, finding that although any specific instance of responding to dispatch may not be an emergency response situation, an officer must treat a call from dispatch as an emergency response until it becomes known what the nature of the dispatch call is.

The appellate court punted on the issue of whether the injury was catastrophic. The court fell back on the fact that at no point had the board ever properly determined that the line-of-duty benefits should stop, and so if he was still receiving line-of-duty benefits, his injuries must be classified as catastrophic pursuant to the initial eligibility determination in effect.

The Vaughn decision is significant in that it further defines emergency response under PSEBA to include any perfunctory task in which an emergency situation could be communicated to an officer. However, it is also significant in that it shows how a procedural misstep in discontinuing line-of-duty benefits can create a faulty foundation for any decision which relates to the benefit determination. It seems at least likely that the officer’s line-of-duty benefits could have been properly terminated based on his being able to return to work. Yet the board incurred a great deal of time and legal expense, not to mention the value of the benefits the officer must be retroactively compensated for, because it failed to provide proper procedural requirements, such as allowing the officer an opportunity to participate in the termination of benefit hearing.

Brad Stewart

Author: Brad Stewart