NY Appellate Court Rules Recruit Injured During Training Entitled to Disability Benefits

The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court has ruled that a firefighter-recruit injured during training is entitled to the same disability compensation reserved for firefighters “injured in the performance of his or her duties.” The case involves a recruit with the Norwich Fire Department, Dennis Smith.

Smith had been with the department for less than six months, and was attending the Binghamton Fire Academy when he hurt his left knee. He was unable to complete the academy or return to active duty. He then sought disability compensation under New York Consolidated Laws, General Municipal Law – GMU § 207-a.

The city denied Smith’s request for benefits contending his injury did not occur during the actual performance of his duties. Because he lacked a right to grieve the city’s decision under the collective bargaining agreement, Smith filed suit challenging the city’s decision as being arbitrary, capricious and in violation of GMU § 207-a.

The trial court agreed with Smith, prompting the city to appeal. As explained by the Appellate Division (internal cites and quotes removed for ease of reading):

  • Where, as here, an administrative determination is made where an evidentiary hearing is not required by law, this Court’s review is limited to whether the determination had a rational basis and was not arbitrary and capricious.
  • An action is arbitrary and capricious when it is taken without sound basis in reason or regard to the facts.
  • General Municipal Law § 207-a provides for the payment of the full amount of regular salary or wages to a firefighter who is injured “in the performance of” or “as a result of” his or her job duties.
  • To be eligible for benefits, a firefighter need only demonstrate “a direct causal relationship between job duties and the resulting illness or injury” without regard to “whether the specific injury-causing activity was one entailing the ‘heightened risk'” posed to firefighters.
  • The term “duties” in General Municipal Law § 207-a encompasses the full range of a covered employee’s job duties.
  • We agree with Supreme Court that the denial of petitioner’s application for General Municipal Law § 207-a benefits was arbitrary and capricious.
  • In its denial letter, the City set forth that the application was denied on the ground that petitioner’s alleged injury occurred while training, not as a result of the performance of his duties.
  • However, General Municipal Law § 209-w and the governing regulations require that probationary firefighters, such as petitioner, complete an approved fire basic training program within a proscribed period of time following their initial hire.
  • Petitioner was injured while practicing for the candidate physical ability test, a mandatory component of the required training.
  • Although petitioner’s injury did not occur in the course of his actual performance of the required test, successful completion of the candidate physical ability test was a necessary requirement of petitioner’s position, and petitioner was engaged in the expected and foreseeable task of practicing for that test during a mandatory training program that was part of his duties as a probationary firefighter.
  • [The city] nevertheless asks us to find a rational basis for the denial of the application on the ground that petitioner failed to demonstrate that his knee injury was causally related to the training he was engaged in, as opposed to a preexisting injury.
  • However, judicial review of an administrative determination is limited to the grounds invoked by the agency.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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