Supreme Court Summaries

Opinions filed February 17, 2012

 

 

 

Gaffney v. Board of Trustees, 2011 IL 110012

 

Appellate citations:    Gaffney, 397 Ill. App. 3d 679.

                                    Lemmenes, 399 Ill. App. 3d 644.

 

      CHIEF JUSTICE KILBRIDE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

      Justices Freeman, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

      Justice Garman concurred in part and dissented in part, with opinion, joined by Justices Thomas and Karmeier.

 

      These consolidated appeals from Cook County involve Orland Park firefighters whose injuries caused them to be awarded line-of-duty disability pensions. In addition, they sought statutory benefits in the form of “continuing health coverage” under the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act, which requires employers of full-time firefighters to pay health insurance premiums for the firefighter and his or her spouse and dependent children if the firefighter suffers a catastrophic injury as a result of a response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency.

      Gaffney injured his shoulder in 2005 during a training exercise in which he was required to participate. It was a live-fire exercise, but he knew that it was a training exercise. There was no dispute that he had sustained a “catastrophic injury” which ended his career. After he was denied the requested benefits by the board of trustees of the Orland Park Fire Protection District, he filed a circuit court complaint seeking a declaratory judgment that he was entitled to them. Although he argued that the board was not an administrative agency which was authorized to render a decision that would be reviewable only under the Administrative Review Law, Gaffney nevertheless included an alternative complaint count seeking review under that law “purely for prophylactic reasons.” The circuit court dismissed the declaratory judgment action and treated the prayer for relief as a petition for common law writ of certiorari. It then found that training exercises were not covered and, therefore, that Gaffney could not reasonably have believed there was an emergency. It agreed with the board’s denial of benefits, and the appellate court affirmed.

      In its decision as to Gaffney, the supreme court held that the board was not an agency which could issue a final decision that would be subject to the deferential standard of administrative review and that Gaffney could not be charged with having acquiesced in the theory that administrative review was proper. Thus, he should have been allowed to proceed with his declaratory judgment action, and his count therefor should not have been dismissed by the circuit court.

      In reviewing what the circuit and appellate courts had done as to benefit eligibility, the supreme court construed the benefit statute. The precedential law on which the appellate court had relied presented a standard for the meaning of the undefined statutory term “emergency” as being that which is urgent and calls for immediate action. In this decision, the supreme court agreed with this, but added an additional element to the definition of “emergency”--that of unforeseeability. In the case of a firefighter, whose job is responding to situations involving imminent danger to persons or property, the word “emergency” means an unforeseen circumstance that involves imminent danger to persons or property and that requires an urgent response. The supreme court also held that an unforeseen circumstance calling for urgent and immediate action can arise in a training exercise, and it noted that the General Assembly has not chosen to exclude training exercises from the coverage of the benefit statute. The circuit court’s judgment rejecting benefit eligibility was reversed as to Gaffney and the cause was remanded to it for further proceedings in the declaratory judgment action. The appellate court was also reversed.

      In the Lemmenes case, the firefighter was required to participate in a training exercise which took place in 2002. It did not involve a live fire, but was a simulation in which there was no smoke, but participants’ headgear was “blacked out” so they could not see. They were instructed to “respond as if it were an actual emergency.” In a purported mission to rescue someone who was trapped in a burning building, Lemmenes injured his knee when attempting to pull the victim out. After initial refusal of his request for benefits, Lemmenes sought a declaratory judgment in the circuit court, and was awarded a summary judgment, which the appellate court affirmed.

      In light of the principles discussed as to Gaffney, the supreme court said that Lemmenes’ situation was not like that of Gaffney’s. Despite the fact that Lemmenes was instructed to “respond as if it were an actual emergency,” the supreme court held that he was not injured while making an urgent response to unforeseen circumstances involving an imminent danger to person or property. The circuit court should not have granted summary judgment in Lemmenes’ favor, and the appellate court should not have affirmed.