Section 10 of the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act provides that police officers receiving line-of-duty pensions are entitled to receive fully paid health insurance coverage for themselves and their families when the officer’s pension was the result of a catastrophic injury suffered in one of four specific circumstances. In Vaughn v. The City of Carbondale, the Court addressed the question of whether the health insurance benefit is triggered whenever police officers are injured responding to a dispatcher’s call. Reversing the Fifth District, the Court held that the answer was “no.” Our detailed summary of the underlying facts and lower court holdings in Vaughn is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.
Vaughn began in 2005, when the plaintiff, a police officer, stopped to give directions to a motorist. While talking to the citizen, a call came in from the officer’s dispatcher. The plaintiff had a portable radio on his uniform, but it was turned off. He returned to his car to respond to the call, but struck his head on the car door frame. Not long after, an MRI showed a compression fracture of the plaintiff’s vertebrae. He never returned to work for the police department.
The plaintiff filed an application with the Police Pension Board for a line-of-duty pension. The Board rejected his application, but the circuit court reversed, and the Appellate Court affirmed. The plaintiff then sent the defendant a written demand that it provide the Section 10 health insurance coverage benefit. Not long after, the Board directed plaintiff to submit to a physical examination. Following the doctor’s report, the Board terminated the plaintiff’s pension. The Circuit Court affirmed, but the Appellate Court once again reversed, holding that the Board had violated the plaintiff’s due process rights by terminating the insurance benefit without notice or a proper hearing.
Following the Board’s decision that the plaintiff was no longer disabled, the Board sent plaintiff written notice of termination of his health insurance benefits. The plaintiff once again sued for injunctive relief, but the Circuit Court rejected plaintiff’s claim, holding that he had not suffered a catastrophic injury in the line of duty. The Appellate Court reversed the Circuit Court’s judgment, holding that the fact that the plaintiff was still receiving his line-of-duty pension by definition showed that he had suffered a catastrophic injury sufficient to trigger the Section 10 benefit.
In a unanimous opinion by Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court reversed. Before the Supreme Court, the defendant did not dispute that the plaintiff had suffered a catastrophic injury within the meaning of the statute. However, the defendant pointed out that Section 10 included a second requirement: the injury must be suffered in response to fresh pursuit, an unlawful act perpetrated by another, during the investigation of a criminal act or in response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency.
The Appellate Court held that the fourth requirement – reasonable belief that he was responding to an emergency – was satisfied because an officer is required to respond to all calls from the dispatcher as if the call is an emergency until he knows differently. The defendant argued that the Appellate Court’s holding essentially added a fifth category to Section 10: an officer is injured while responding to a call by a superior.
The Supreme Court held that the facts did not qualify as responding to an emergency. Answering a call from dispatch is not an unforeseen circumstance, the Court observed, and no unexpected or unforeseen circumstances arose while plaintiff was answering the call. Finally, there was no showing of imminent danger to a person or property requiring an urgent response in connection with the dispatcher’s call. Accordingly, the Court found, the plaintiff was not entitled to the Section 10 insurance coverage benefit, and the Circuit Court’s judgment refusing to enjoin the Pension Board from terminating the benefits was not contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence.
In the alternative, the plaintiff argued that once the defendant began paying the insurance benefits, under Section 10 it was barred from terminating the plaintiff’s benefits for any reason aside from those set forth in the statute – obtaining the health insurance by false, fraudulent or misleading oral or written statements, or certain criminal convictions. Since neither party suggested that the plaintiff was guilty of any of the enumerated acts, termination was barred. The Court rejected plaintiff’s argument, holding that since the defendant was not required to provide the benefits in the first place, it was entitled to cease paying the benefits.