In a stunning workers’ compensation opinion that could set an expensive precedent, the Illinois Appellate Court recently ruled that a senior fire official who claimed post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following the line-of-duty death of a fellow firefighter should receive benefits.
In its July 29 opinion in Scott Moran v. the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, et al., the appellate court found that Moran, the claimant, should receive workers’ comp benefits for PTSD, effectively reversing previous rulings to the contrary.
“I don’t see how the municipality might be able to defend or fight such a claim if the officer follows the simple path outlined so carefully by the court in this radical and unprecedented ruling,” Eugene Keefe, a partner with the Chicago firm of Keefe, Campbell, Biery and Associates LLC, said.
The court outlined how Moran, a lieutenant and paramedic, testified that during a March 30, 2010, fire, he was told to take command of an incident, which he did from outside the burning house. Following what was later determined to be a flashover, Moran testified that firefighters came out of the house dragging another firefighter who was obviously in distress.
The claimant said he escalated the alarm to a mayday and called to secure an ambulance while continuing to supervise the scene. Moran and other first responders later were informed the injured firefighter had died.
Consequently, Moran’s fire chief testified that after the fire, they implemented the Emergency Operation Plan in which surrounding fire departments provided coverage for their fire house for about a week.
Moran subsequently testified that, on referral from his attorney, he began to see a psychiatrist “to deal with his inability to get his mind off the fire, his difficulty sleeping, and his interactions with other people, including his family,” the court ruling said. The doctor diagnosed Moran with PTSD and began sessions that lasted through 2010. Moran went back to work in late October 2010 and in December 2010 was released from treatment.
But Moran returned for treatment in January 2011 and “expressed difficulty shutting the thoughts off and struggled with feelings of conflict and guilt about the accident,” the ruling said.
Moran’s attorney then referred him to another psychiatrist as a possible patient for psychotherapy. That doctor diagnosed Moran with chronic PTSD “based on the fact that the claimant had an exposure to a sudden, unusual, traumatic event.”
“The court carefully outlines why he has PTSD and what he’s doing to show he has PTSD, which basically creates a roadmap for any other firefighter or police officer to create a PTSD claim,” Keefe, who is not involved in the case, said.
An arbitrator previously had ruled that it’s not an accident to have somebody die while managing a fire – that it’s part of the risks of being a firefighter, Keefe said. Specifically, the arbitrator said Moran did not prove he sustained accidental injuries that arose out of and in the course of his employment, and was awarded no benefits. On review, both the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission (IWCC) and the Circuit Court of Cook County agreed with the arbitrator.
Even Moran’s employer, the village of Homewood, argued that Moran did not suffer an emotional shock because he wasn’t inside the house when the flashover occurred, did not see the firefighters sustain injuries, did not sustain a physical injury himself, was not involved in efforts to resuscitate the dying firefighter, did not witness the man’s death and did not seek treatment on his own accord.
But on appeal, the appellate court decided that Moran did suffer a sudden, severe emotional shock during the fire, producing a psychological injury.
“The claimant’s presence outside the house does not preclude the event from being traumatic,” the court said. “Clearly, this is not the kind of event that an employee would be subject to during the normal course of employment … and he is entitled to recover for his psychological disability.”
Keefe prefaced his comments by saying that the death of a firefighter is sad and tragic, and that he isn’t trying to minimize the situation or Moran’s reaction to it.
“But the idea that every guy in that fire department now could say, ‘I’m upset. I knew that guy. I feel terrible that he died. I feel like I can never work again.' I really have a problem with that. I think firefighter benefits are already sky high in this state, and now they’ve gotten sky-higher,” Keefe said.
And because Moran is a senior firefighter official, Keefe suggests that maybe he could work somewhere else rather than not work and receive benefits.
“Why can’t we give him something else to do so he isn’t on the taxpayers’ dime for the rest of his life? I’m sure the firefighters union would go crazy about that, but … that’s what I call Crazy Illinois. It’s just nuts that this guy can make this claim, and now taxpayers owe him for the rest of his life,” Keefe said.
The public also should consider that going forward, any firefighter could potentially file a similar PTSD claim on the first day of the job, or even the first hour of the job, or an entire fire department could walk off the job, Keefe said.
“Again, benefits are going to go sky high, through the roof, with the way they’re doing things in this state," Keefe said. "Everyone is starting to worry when is the rubber band going to break on all this stuff? It has the potential for setting a huge number of claims."
In reversing the decisions of the IWCC and circuit court, the appellate court remanded the case to the IWCC.
The appellate court’s opinion is available online at www.illinoiscourts.gov.