Officer Loses Duty Disability Claim By Trying To Bench Press Too Much

In 2011, Michael Shafer, who was then employed by the Village of Lake in the Hills, Illinois as a police officer, participated in physical fitness testing specified in the collective bargaining agreement between the Village and the Metropolitan Alliance of Police. The contract awarded officers additional compensatory time off based on their performance on a test involving sit-ups, sit-and-reach, bench press, and a 1.5-mile run.

Each test is pass/fail. If a participant achieved the 40th percentile on the first attempt, he or she would pass the test. Participants were not obligated to attempt to bench press more than the minimum weight necessary to achieve the 40th percentile. A participant could elect to do so, however, to qualify to earn additional compensatory time.

Using free weights, Shafer successfully completed the bench-press test by lifting the minimum weight. He was then asked if he wished to attempt to increase the weight to the 80th-percentile level. Shafer decided to attempt to lift the heavier weight. When he lifted the bar off the bench, he felt his shoulder “give out.” He was later found to have torn his right rotator cuff. An attempt to repair the injury surgically was unsuccessful.

The Village’s pension board concluded that Shafer was disabled as a result of the incident, but that he did not sustain the disabling injury in the performance of an act of duty. Shafer challenged the Board’s decision in court.

The Illinois Court of Appeals upheld the Board’s decision. The Court started with the proposition that line-of-duty disabilities could only be awarded if the officer was engaged in an “act of duty.” That term is defined as “any act of police duty inherently involving special risk, not ordinarily assumed by a citizen in the ordinary walks of life, imposed on a policeman by the statutes of this State or by the ordinances or police regulations of the city in which this Article is in effect or by a special assignment.

“Here, Shafer was injured while performing a bench press. Shafer does not dispute that citizens in ordinary walks of life perform the same exercise and are at risk of injury when they do so. Shafer argues, however, that although the injury could have happened to a civilian while lifting weights, he suffered the injury while performing a police act that involved a special risk, because ordinary citizens are not required to take ‘mandatory physical tests.’ This argument seems to focus solely on the occupational risks of ordinary civilian life.

“Because Shafer was under no duty to attempt the particular physical test that led to his injury, his argument fails regardless of whether the test would otherwise be deemed to involve a special risk. After successfully lifting the minimum weight necessary to pass the bench-press test, Shafer was given the option of increasing the weight so as to earn additional compensatory time. It is clear, however, that the collective bargaining agreement did not impose any duty on Shafer to attempt to exceed the minimum requirement. Shafer has not identified any statute, ordinance, regulation, or special assignment that imposed such a duty. Once Shafer passed the bench-press test, his election to attempt to lift a heavier weight was for his personal benefit.”

Shafer v. Lake in the Hills Pension Board, 2014 IL App (2d) 131002-U (Ill. App. 2014).