Illinois Appellate Court Concludes Firefighting Exacerbated Combat Vet’s PTDS

An Illinois firefighter who developed a severe case of PTSD while serving a combat tour in Afghanistan, has been awarded a disability pension by the Illinois Court of Appeals who concluded that firefighting exacerbated his pre-existing condition.

Gregory Prawdzik was a firefighter for the Homer Township Fire Protection District. He was deployed to Afghanistan for 10-months in 2008-2009 during which time he served as a combat medic. Upon returning he experienced a number of PTSD related symptoms and was treated extensively through the Veterans Administration.

When Prawdzik returned to duty with the fire department he continued to experience psychological issues related to PTSD. In particular, he found driving apparatus to be a trigger for his symptoms because the vehicles reminded him of those he used in combat. An incident that stood out occurred on November 7, 2014 when the fire truck he was driving began shifting gears abruptly. According to the decision:

  • As Prawdzik tried to check the pump shift lever to fix the problem, he inadvertently hit the power switch, shutting off all the power in the vehicle while the vehicle was traveling at approximately 45 miles per hour.
  • This reminded Prawdzik of his experience in Afghanistan when his vehicle was hit by an IED, and it gave Prawdzik the feeling that he was going to die.
  • Prawdzik testified that he had an anxiety attack after the November 7, 2014, incident and that his PTSD symptoms of anxiety got progressively worse thereafter.

In 2015, Prawdzik filed for a disability pension, which was denied by the Homer Township Fire Protection District Firefighters’ Pension Fund. Prawdzik appealed the decision to Will County Circuit Court, who upheld the Pension Board’s decision concluding the disability was related to the PTSD, but the PTSD was not related to firefighting. Prawdzik then sought review by the Court of Appeals.

According to the Court of Appeals:

  • To recover a line of duty disability pension, a claimant need not prove that his job duties were the “sole or even the primary cause” of his disability”; rather, it is sufficient that an act of duty was an “aggravating, contributing or exacerbating factor” in the ensuing disability.
  • The claimant must only prove that the duty-related injury is a “causative factor contributing to the claimant’s disability.”
  • “There is no requirement that the duty-related incident be the originating or primary cause of injury, although a sufficient nexus between the injury and the performance of the duty must exist.”
  • Accordingly, “[a] disability pension may be based upon the line-of-duty aggravation of a preexisting condition.”
  • In this case, two of the three physicians chosen by the Board expressly opined that Prawdzik’s work duties… aggravated or exacerbated Prawdzik’s preexisting psychological conditions, resulting in Prawdzik’s disability.
  • Although the third physician chosen by the Board, Dr. Frank, did not explicitly opine that Prawdzik’s disability was caused in whole or in part by the November 7, 2014, incident, she acknowledged that driving fire trucks “aggravated” Prawdzik’s PTSD, which was the cause of his disability.
  • Frank’s opinion focuses primarily on the “cause” of Prawdzik’s PTSD.
  • She concludes that Prawdzik’s “combat exposure, and not any incident or trauma in his employment with [the District] is the cause of his PTSD.”
  • However, this means only that, in Dr. Frank’s opinion, Prawdzik’s PTSD originated from his combat exposure.
  • Frank did not deny that certain acts of duty connected to Prawdzik’s employment aggravated or exacerbated Prawdzik’s PTSD in a manner that contributed to Prawdzik’s current disability.
  • The judgment of the circuit court of Will County is reversed. The cause is remanded to the Board with instructions to award Prawdzik a line of duty disability pension.

Here is a copy of the decision: 2018 Prawdzik v. Bd. of Trs._ 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEX

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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