By Michael J. Peters and John M. O’Driscoll

Municipalities and the State face tremendous financial burdens associated with pensions costs that accrue more and more every day.   In particular, local governments are especially concerned with the financial costs associated with injured firefighters.  Currently, State law offers multiple pensions for firefighters who become ill because of their work. Specifically, injured firefighters can seek payments through the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (the “Benefits Act”), 820 ILCS 320 et seq.,  and the Illinois Pension Code (the “Pension Code”), 40 ILCS 5 et seq.

Both the Benefits Code and the Pension Code award payments to injured firefighters who suffer a “catastrophic injury” on the job.   However, the Supreme Court in Bremer v City of Rockford, 2016 IL 119889, has given local governments some breathing room by confirming that an injury resulting in an occupational disease—which has always triggered payments to firefighters under the Pension Code—does not trigger payments under the Benefit Act.

As some background, the Section 10 of the Benefits Act provides that a full-time firefighter “who . . . suffers a catastrophic injury or is killed in the line of duty shall pay the entire premium of the employer’s health insurance plan for the injured employee . . . . In order for the . . . firefighter . . . to be eligible for insurance coverage . . . the injury or death must have occurred as the result of the . . . firefighter’s response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency” 820 ILCS 320/10 (West 2008)(emphasis added).

In determining what is a catastrophic injury under the Benefits Act, the Supreme Court of Illinois in Krohe v. City of Bloomington, 204 Ill. 2d 392 (2003) construed “catastrophic injury” as “synonymous with an injury resulting in a line-of-duty disability pension under . . . the [Pension] Code.”   Since Krohe, many local governments have wondered if a disease resulting from the occupation of firefighting— like respiratory illnesses—are compensable under the Benefits Act.  This question was resolved in Bremer.
In Bremer, the City of Rockford granted William Bremer an occupational disease disability pension for Bremer’s heart condition in 2007 and paid the health insurance premiums for Bremer and his wife through February 2008.  In March 2008, Bremer applied for payment of his health insurance through the Benefits Act and was denied for failing to state a “catastrophic injury” required by the Benefits Act.  In upholding Rockford’s denial, the Court noted that the term “catastrophic injury” encompasses only line-of-duty injuries, but not injuries caused by the stresses of firefighting over time.  In other words, although a disease caused by the occupation of firefighting may be compensable to a firefighter under the Pension Code, it is not a “catastrophic injury” compensable under the Benefits Act.

Therefore, local governments and boards should know that any firefighter who may have heart disease, a stroke, tuberculosis, or any disease of the lungs or respiratory tract, resulting from service are entitled to benefits under the Pension Code. The government can take [some] financial reprieve in knowing that these diseases are not compensable under the Benefits Act.