Pilot’s Survivors Entitled To Public Safety Officers’ Benefits

Lawrence Groff was employed by San Joaquin Helicopters, which provides pilots to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF). On August 27, 2001, Groff was piloting an aerial firefighting tanker, helping to suppress a wildfire near Hopland, California. Although Groff was employed by the private company, the airtanker he was piloting was owned by the Department. Mr. Groff’s airtanker collided with another aircraft in midair, and he died as a result of his collision. Groff’s widow applied for benefits under the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act of 1976 (PSOBA). When the Bureau of Justice Administration denied the benefits on the grounds that Groff was not employed by a public agency, his widow appealed.

The Court of Federal Claims upheld the request for benefits. The Court found that Groff, though a private employee, “was nonetheless performing services as part of the CDF much like a CDF employee and was officially recognized by the CDF in doing so.” The Court noted that the legislative history of the Act indicated that Congress intended to compensate the families of law enforcement personnel and firefighters who died during the course of their service, and recognized that public safety officers are not highly paid, and that they perform a public service at a high risk of personal injury and death. In the Court’s eyes, “the legislative history of the PSOBA as a whole indicates that Congress was desirous of compensating the survivors of firefighters killed in the line of duty, and that legislative history does not support the Bureau of Justice Administration’s narrow and cramped reading of PSOBA so as to categorically ban PSOBA coverage for contractor firefighters.”

In the eyes of the Court, Groff “was performing services as a part of the CDF” at the time he died. The Court noted that “during firefighting operations, contractor pilots such as Groff were supervised by a CDF air tactical group supervisor who would ordinarily fly in orbit above the level of the airtankers and describe targets to the airtanker and helicopter pilots. The CDF dispatched the planes flown by pilots such as Groff, and specified what uniforms those pilots would wear. Contractor pilots were required to participate in CDF debriefings, and were evaluated by CDF personnel. Contractor pilots had CDF credit cards for refueling CDF planes. From the evidence provided in the CDF aviation handbook, Groff was functioning as a part of the CDF as he was performing firefighting services, much like a CDF employee.”

Groff v. United States, 2006 2079108 (Fed.Cl. 2006).

This article appears in the September 2006 issue