Fire Captain Not Entitled To Accidental Disability Pay For Hearing Loss

New York is one of several states that grants a higher level of disability benefits where a police officer’s or firefighter’s underlying condition was due to an “accident.” In general, an accident is defined as a “sudden, fortuitous mischance, unexpected, out of the ordinary, and injurious impact.”

Jack LaBella was a fire captain with the New Rochelle, New York Fire Department. LaBella was injured on March 22, 2003, when one of the crew members he was supervising activated the air horn and siren on a fire engine located inside the firehouse during a routine inspection. LaBella was in close proximity to the fire engine at the time and immediately experienced ringing in his ears.

LaBella later filed an application for accidental disability retirement benefits due to the hearing loss he suffered as a result. Following the initial denial of his application, LaBella appealed to the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court.

The Court upheld the denial of accidental benefits. The Court found that an injury is not considered accidental “if it emanates from a risk inherent in the regular duties of the job.” In the eyes of the Court, “the evidence establishes that the fire engine apparatus, including the siren and horn, was inspected on a weekly basis according to a prepared checklist, and it was both required and expected that the inspection would be conducted that day.”

LaBella pointed to the fact that it was customary to run the engine when testing the horn and siren, and that neither the horn nor siren were to be sounded while inside the firehouse. The Court found this evidence was not enough, reasoning “while the timing of the test was certainly inopportune, it cannot be said to have been unexpected or out of the ordinary. In view of the above, as well as the fact that LaBella was engaged in his ordinary duties of inspecting the firehouse at the time of the incident, substantial evidence supports the conclusion that his injury occurred as the result of a risk inherent in his job and was not accidental in nature.”

LaBella v. Hevesi, 810 N.Y.S.2d 603 (A.D. 2006).

This article appears in the May 2006 issue