When a firefighter works full-time for one department, and part-time for a second department, can the full-time department be financially responsible if the firefighter suffers a career ending injury while operating at a fire where both departments respond, even though she responded with the part-time department?
That complicated issue was answered in the affirmative by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The case involves Amy E. Kriegshauser, who served full-time with the White Bear Lake Fire Department and part-time with the Hugo Fire Department. The court of appeals explained the facts as follows:
- Amy E. Kriegshauser was a firefighter and paramedic concurrently employed by the City of Hugo and [the] City of White Bear Lake (WBL).
- In 2015, Kriegshauser began employment with WBL, and she became a full-time firefighter and paramedic for WBL a few years later.
- Through WBL, Kriegshauser received health insurance and also contributed to the public employees police and fire retirement plan (PERA’s police and fire plan).
- Kriegshauser became a paid on-call volunteer firefighter for Hugo in 2013, which required her to respond to 25 percent of the calls made for firefighter assistance per year.
- She maintained pagers for both cities.
- On April 23, 2019, a structure fire in Hugo prompted a call to both paid on-call firefighters and firefighters from communities that had agreements for reciprocal service with Hugo.
- As a result, both of Kriegshauser’s pagers alerted her: the first alert went to her Hugo pager, then a second to her WBL pager.
- Kriegshauser answered the Hugo page, in part to satisfy her 25-percent-call-response requirement, and arrived at the fire scene in Hugo gear and in a Hugo fire truck.
- The Hugo fire chief was the on-scene commander.
- After reassignment from one side of the structure to another, Kriegshauser operated under the direction of the WBL fire chief, G.P., who was supervising firefighters on that side of the building.
- She followed G.P.’s orders to enter the basement of the structure by ladder with a WBL fire captain.
- Once inside, Kriegshauser was chest-deep in water while wearing full gear, which weighed approximately one hundred pounds.
- Because it was unsafe, Kriegshauser ascended a ladder to exit the basement but felt her knee buckle.
- A few days after the fire, Kriegshauser filed a first report of injury with Hugo. Kriegshauser later learned that she severely injured her knee and femur.
- Hugo and the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust accepted liability and provided Kriegshauser with workers’ compensation benefits.
- Kriegshauser underwent multiple knee surgeries, various rehabilitation efforts, and a full knee replacement.
- She attempted to return to work as a WBL firefighter, but she experienced pain and swelling that prevented her from performing her job.
- In April 2020, WBL terminated Kriegshauser’s employment, and Kriegshauser has not returned to work as a firefighter.
- In May 2020, Kriegshauser submitted her PERA application for duty-disability benefits.
- PERA initially awarded only regular-disability benefits.
- Kriegshauser then retained counsel to file a request for reconsideration.
- PERA reviewed additional information submitted by Kriegshauser and reversed its initial determination, awarding Kriegshauser duty-disability benefits and notifying WBL of its obligation to provide ongoing health-insurance benefits.
- WBL challenged the PERA determination.
- The ALJ held a contested-case hearing. In a subsequent order, the ALJ determined that WBL failed to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Kriegshauser did not sustain a duty disability.
- As a result, WBL was “responsible for continuing to provide health insurance coverage for [Kreigshauser] and her dependents and for continuing to pay its contribution for that coverage.
White Bear Lake appealed the ruling to the court of appeals. The court who agreed with both the PERA and the administrative law judge, concluding that Kriegshauser’s injury met the statutory definition of a “duty disability,” and that White Bear Lake was Kriegshauser’s “employer” at the time of the duty-related injury under Minnesota law.
Here is a copy of the decision: