ILLINOIS SUPREME COURT DECISION DEALS A BLOW TO FIREFIGHTERS

The Supreme Court Decision of William Bremer v. The City of Rockford, 2016 IL 119889 filed on December 30, 2016 denied William Bremer, a City of Rockford firefighter’s claim for health insurance benefits under the Illinois Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (PSEBA) (820 ILCS 320/10(a) (West 2008). The Act provides the following:

(a) an employer who employs a full-time law enforcement, correctional or correctional probation officer, or firefighter, who, on or after the effective date of this Act 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…. Bremer was awarded an occupational disease disability pension under Section 4-110.1 of the Pension Code (40 ILCS 5/4-110.1) (West 2004)), based on a Board finding that the preponderance of the medical evidence established that Bremer’s cardiomyopathy resulted from the performance of his duties as a firefighter. Subsequently, Bremer filed for his continuing health insurance benefits under Section 10 of PSEBA which The City of Rockford denied. Bremer prevailed in his Summary Judgment Motion in the Circuit Court of Winnebago County and the City of Rockford was ordered to pay benefits under PSEBA. The City of Rockford appealed and the Appellate Court reversed, denying benefits. The primary issue in the case was whether the phrase “catastrophic injury” in Section 10(a) is also synonymous with an injury resulting in an occupational disease disability pension under Section 4-110.1 of the Pension Code. (40 ILCS 5/4-110.1) (West 2008)). Bremer contended that an occupational disease disability pension awarded under Section 4-110.1 of the Pension Code is a line of duty disability pension because, by definition, it results from service as a firefighter and arises out of the course of employment. Bremer argued that his disability arose in the line of duty as a matter of law and is, therefore, a “catastrophic injury” within the meaning of Section 10(a) of PSEBA. The Supreme Court disagreed, noting that it had previously interpreted that the legislative history is such that the legislature intended the phrase “catastrophic injury” in Section 10(a) to be “synonymous with an injury resulting in a line of duty disability under Section 4-110 of the Pension Code.” What remains unanswered is if the legislature intended to limit benefits to recipients of a line of duty disability pension. Why would they have not used that phrase instead of “catastrophic injury” in Section 10(a)? Katz Friedman attorneys Richard K. Johnson and Frank J. Bertuca on behalf of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association in a “friend of the court” brief, argued that the legislature’s interpretation of the phrase “catastrophic injury” must have intended more than just a line of duty disability pension and furthermore that any recipient of an occupational disease disability pension should be allowed an opportunity to establish a right to continuing health insurance coverage under PSEBA. Justice Kilbride, concurring in part and dissenting in part, stated the case should be remanded for further proceedings to give Plaintiff such an opportunity. Frank J. Bertuca commented, “I am thrilled that Justice Kilbride stood out from the majority recommending that Bremer should not be denied the opportunity to present his case. It just seems fundamentally unfair, when there is a chance that he could prove entitlement to coverage.“ Richard K. Johnson stated “the tone of this decision is that the legislature intended to provide less protection to firefighters disabled from heart disease, lung disease and cancer than firefighters injured in a single act of duty. I’m not so certain the legislature clearly intended to deny benefits to these injured firefighters and their families.”