Giving Aid Is A ‘High-Risk’ Activity For Corrections Officer

Employees of the Douglas County, Nebraska Department of Corrections are covered by a collective bargaining agreement that provides for enhanced “Injured On Duty” (IOD) benefits for employees performing a high-risk duty. The CBA defines the phrase “high-risk duty” as including (1) responding to a Code, and (2) interaction with an inmate while that inmate is engaged in an act of violence with the officer, another inmate or himself/herself.”

Rachelle L. Timberlake is a corrections officer for the County. Timberlake worked as an escort at the county jail, relieving officers who were assigned to specific housing units and escorting inmates who were moved through the facility. Her specific position was entitled “2 Delta Escort R1”: “2 Delta” referred to her floor assignment. Apart from her other duties, “R1” meant she was a first responder for any emergencies in the facility.

On July 22, 2011, Timberlake saw her supervisor go limp and start to slide out of his chair during a seizure. While trying to protect him from hitting his head, she lost her balance and hit her own head against a concrete wall, sustaining a concussion. She called a “code green,” which is a request for medical personnel to assist in an area. She said she called a code green because her supervisor was in severe distress and she wanted medical personnel to assist them.

Soon after the accident, Timberlake was taken to the hospital and missed several days of work. When she returned to work, she requested IOD benefits. The County denied her request, taking the position that “while a code was involved, it neither involved an inmate nor were there any acts of violence.” Timberlake sued the County, seeking a declaratory judgment that she was entitled to IOD benefits.

The Nebraska Court of Appeals sided with Timberlake. Turning first to the specific language of the CBA, the Court found that “if the drafters of the contract language had intended that an officer must always be interacting with a violent inmate when injured to qualify for IOD benefits, they had no need to include ‘responding to a Code’ as an additional element.

“The County argues that giving first aid is not a high-risk activity. But the CBA provides IOD benefits for employees injured while responding to a code, which includes a code green for medical emergencies. By including ‘responding to a Code’ as a high-risk duty, the parties implicitly concluded that the risk of injury while responding to a medical emergency code is sufficient to warrant IOD benefits.

“Although Timberlake was not responding to a code green, her conduct – responding to a medical emergency – was within the meaning of a high-risk duty under the CBA. Words are known by the company they keep, so a court gives written words grouped together in a list a related meaning. And her duty to respond to a medical emergency was indistinguishable from her duty to respond to a code green. An incapacitated officer presents a security risk and Timberlake had a duty to respond to any emergency she witnessed.”

Timberlake v. Douglas County, 291 Neb. 387 (Neb. App. 2015).