Disease linked to firefighting not 'catastrophic injury' allowing free health insurance: IL Supreme Court

By Jonathan Bilyk | Dec 30, 2016

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 Rockford.

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.

Illinois Supreme Court  

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 city said.

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 Pension Code.”

Bremer was represented in the action by attorney Thomas G. Ruud, of Rockford.

The city of Rockford was represented by its Department of Law.

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City of Rockford Illinois Second District Appellate Court Illinois Supreme Court Thomas G. Ruud & Associates

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