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Slip and fall leads to disability pension, health insurance for police officer

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An injured Illinois police officer who received a line-of-duty disability pension is entitled to health insurance benefits pursuant to the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

William J. Heelan worked as a police officer for the Village of Vernon Hills for about 20 years, court records show. While responding to an emergency call in December 2009, Mr. Heelan slipped on ice and fell on his right side.

He was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a spasm, shoulder sprain and hip bruise according to records. Later that month, an MRI revealed preexisting, significant osteoarthritis.

An independent medical evaluation was performed in January 2010, records show. The doctor opined that Mr. Heelan's December 2009 injury aggravated his preexisting right hip osteoarthritis.

According to records, Mr. Heelan filed a claim for workers compensation benefits, leading him and the village to settle for a lump sum. During the year following his injury, the village paid Mr. Heelan his full salary pursuant to the Illinois Public Safety Employee Benefits Act.

He underwent a right hip replacement in April 2010 and a left hip replacement in September 2010, after which he didn't return to work, records show.

According to records, he applied in December 2010 for a line-of-duty disability pension, an award paid to police officers who, “as the result of sickness, accident or injury incurred in or resulting from the performance of an act of duty, is found to be physically or mentally disabled for service in the police department, so as to render necessary his or her suspension or retirement from the police service.”

The board of trustees of the Vernon Hills Police Pension Fund granted Mr. Heelan the line-of-duty disability pension. The village didn't object to the board's decision, but it filed a complaint the following month seeking a declaratory judgment that it was not responsible to pay the health insurance premium for Mr. Heelan and his family as a result, records show.

The village argued that Mr. Heelan didn't meet the statutory requirements of suffering a “catastrophic injury,” according to records. However, the Circuit Court of Lake County, Illinois, concluded that Mr. Heelan was entitled to the insurance benefits pursuant to the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act since he “received a line-of-duty pension, and there's a stipulation that he was responding to an emergency.”

According to the act, to be eligible for insurance “the injury or death must have occurred as the result of the officer's response to fresh pursuit, the officer or firefighter's response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency, an unlawful act perpetrated by another, or during the investigation of a criminal act.”

The village appealed, arguing that it was deprived of due process and denied the opportunity to “litigate the nature, extent, or causation of Heelan's injuries,” records show.

A divided 2nd District Appellate Court of Illinois rejected this argument in July 2014. The dissenting justice stated that the village didn't have an opportunity to be heard regarding the evidence of catastrophic injury.

The Illinois Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed the judgment of the appellate court, ruling that, under the act, employer-sponsored health insurance should be continued for “public safety employees and the families of public safety employees who are either killed or 'catastrophically injured' in the line of duty.”