The First District Appellate Court of Illinois ruled last week that responding to a homeowner’s request to rescue a cat stuck on a roof is not an emergency, and thus a firefighter who was injured when a ladder collapsed is not entitled to benefits under the Illinois Public Safety Employee Benefits Act.
The case involved firefighter Andrew Brousseau of the Village of Mount Prospect Fire Department. On June 22, 2004, his ladder company was dispatched to assist in retrieving a cat that was on a homeowner’s roof.
When Brousseau’s crew arrived, the homeowner already had a ladder in place and she was planning on using to go after the cat. It is unclear if he was directed or permitted by ranking officers on scene, but Brousseau climbed the ladder, accessed the roof, located the cat, and handed it to someone inside the home through a dormer window. However, upon descending the ladder it collapsed causing Brousseau to fall and fracture his femur.
Brousseau was unable to return to duty and was awarded a disability pension. He sought additional health insurance benefits from the Village under the Illinois Public Safety Employee Benefits Act, 820 ILCS 320. The PSEBA requires “employers to pay health insurance premiums for a firefighter and his family if the firefighter suffers a catastrophic injury under specified circumstances.” One of those circumstances is that “the injury or death must have occurred as the result of the … firefighter’s response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency.” The Village rejected Brousseau’s request for life-time health care benefits finding that a “cat on a roof” did not qualify as an emergency.
Brousseau appealed the decision to the Cook County Circuit Court, who reversed concluding a cat on a roof was indeed a qualifying emergency. The court concluded that two unforeseen circumstances – the cat on the roof and an upset homeowner who made it clear she would try to retrieve the cat if she did not receive help from the fire department – turned an ordinary service call into an emergency. The Village then appealed to the First District Appellate Court.
In ruling in favor of the Village, the First District concluded:
- To qualify for benefits under section 10(b) of the [PSEBA], the claimant must subjectively believe he was facing an emergency and that belief must be reasonable.
- Each case must be decided on its own facts.
- “An event or incident that is not initially an emergency may become an emergency as the circumstances change.”
- Here, plaintiff asserts that the incident seemed routine, but unforeseen and dangerous events arose, including that plaintiff was ordered into a dangerous situation on top of the roof and had to use equipment that violated Village policy.
- Plaintiff argues that the use of a non-department ladder combined with the immediacy of the need to remove the cat from the roof constituted an emergency.
- Notwithstanding plaintiff’s stated belief at the hearing that the homeowner was in danger, his belief that he was facing an emergency was not reasonable.
- Chief Dawson testified at the hearing that the matter was a typical service call and plaintiff stated that responding to animal calls is part of the fire department’s service to the community.
- Nothing about the situation generally suggested an emergency.
- Although using the homeowner’s ladder was a deviation from the fire department’s standard practice of using its own ladders, there is no evidence that anyone was in imminent danger at the time.
- There is no evidence that the condition of the homeowner mandated the use of her ladder immediately, as opposed to waiting for the firefighters to use their own ladder.
- Because here, no one was in imminent danger and no urgent response was needed, plaintiff could not have reasonably believed he was responding to an emergency. Thus, the hearing officer properly denied plaintiff’s claim for benefits under the Act.
Here is a copy of the decision: