A Rockford firefighter who officials determined contracted cardiomyopathy
through his decades of service at the city’s fire department cannot also assert
the disease should be considered a “catastrophic injury” entitling him and his
wife to free health insurance under a “line-of-duty” pension, the Illinois Supreme
Court has ruled.
On Dec. 30, the state’s high court unanimously upheld the
ruling of the Illinois Second District Appellate Court, which had rejected the
arguments presented by firefighter William Bremer. The state Supreme Court also
went further, granting summary judgment to the city of Rockford.
The majority opinion was authored by Justice Robert R.
Thomas, of the state’s Second District. Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier and
justices Charles E. Freeman, Rita B. Garman, Anne M. Burke and Mary Jane Theis
concurred in the majority opinion, with Kilbride largely concurring and dissenting
on the question of summary judgment for
Kilbride, of the state’s Third District, argued the high
court had gone too far, and should have instead sent the matter back to the
lower courts for further proceedings in the case.
The case had entered the court system in 2008, when Bremer
sued Rockford for deciding to no longer pay Bremer’s health insurance premiums,
which at the time cost $1,100 per month.
Bremer had served as a Rockford firefighter from 1976 to
2004, when he retired after securing an “occupational disease disability
pension” when he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a condition under which the
heart becomes enlarged and muscle tissue can be replaced with scar tissue.
According to court documents, the condition was considered to be linked to his
work as a firefighter, and had left him unable to perform his duties.
From 2005-2008, the city of Rockford also paid health
insurance premiums for Bremer and his wife, as city ordinance required.
However, in February 2008, the city notified Bremer it would
no longer pay the premiums. If Bremer wished to continue receiving the health
care coverage, he must pay the monthly premiums from his pension check, the
Bremer responded by applying for enhanced benefits under the
state Public Safety Employee Benefits Act, which guarantees free health
insurance firefighters catastrophically injured or spouses of firefighters
injured or killed in the line of duty. Bremer asserted his medical condition
should constitute a catastrophic injury under that law, entitling him and his
wife to free health insurance.
The city denied that application, however, and Bremer filed
suit in Winnebago County court. There, Winnebago County Circuit Judge J. Edward
Prochaska sided with Bremer, ordering the city to reinstate his free health insurance
benefits and to reimburse him $39,000 in medical expenses they incurred while
uninsured, plus $38,000 for the months of premiums the city had refused to pay.
The city appealed, and a panel of the Second District
Appellate Court overturned the lower court’s ruling in April 2015. That, in
turn, prompted Bremer’s appeal to the state high court.
In its opinion, the Illinois Supreme Court said Bremer’s condition,
while linked to his service as a firefighter, is not the same as a catastrophic
injury incurred in the line of duty and entitling a firefighter or other public
safety worker to the enhanced benefits offered under a line-of-duty pension. The
court said Bremer’s condition entitled him, rather, to an occupational disease
disability pension, with its related benefits.
“A catastrophic injury … means an injury resulting in the
award of a line-of-duty disability pension under … the Pension Code,” Thomas
wrote in the majority opinion. “Plaintiff cannot establish a catastrophic
injury under … the Benefits Act by simply showing that he suffered an injury
resulting from his service as a firefighter or an injury that occurred in the
course of his employment.”
The justices said the courts have long established the
definition of “catastrophic injury” under the state’s pension laws, and the
high court declined to overturn that definition in this case.
“We cannot expand that definition to include injuries
resulting in the award of occupational disease disability pensions … without
revising our settled determination of the legislature’s intent in enacting that
provision,” the majority said in its opinion.
“While there may be legitimate policy reasons for expanding
the definition of ‘catastrophic injury,’ any such change must come from the
legislature, not this court. Accordingly, … we conclude that the legislature
did not intend the phrase ‘catastrophic injury’ in section 10(a) of the
Benefits Act to be synonymous with a disease resulting in the award of an
occupational disease disability pension as defined by section 4-110.1 of the
Bremer was represented in the action by attorney Thomas G.
Ruud, of Rockford.
The city of Rockford was represented by its Department of