Training Exercise Not ‘Emergency’ For Purposes Of Post-Disability Health Insurance Law

Steven Garris was a fire lieutenant with the Village of Lake Zurich in Illinois. On March 1, 2012, Garris participated in an exercise called “Personal Escape Bags Inservice.” The exercise involved the use of rappelling equipment designed to assist firefighters escaping from buildings. While performing the exercise, Garris sustained a broken ankle.

Garris’s injury was caused by “his weight acting as force against the injured extremity while rappelling.” Garris filled out a form entitled “Employee’s Statement of Incident,” which requested an explanation of “exactly what happened.” Garris wrote, “foot got caught under sill 2nd floor, descending device let go quicker than anticipated foot got caught body weight and let go.”

Garris was awarded a line-of-duty disability pension by the Village’s pension board. Garris subsequently requested that the Village pay premiums for health insurance coverage for him and his dependents pursuant to Illinois’ Public Safety Employee Benefits Act. When the Village denied Garris’s request for benefits under the Act, Garris sued.

The key question for the Illinois Court of Appeals was whether, within the scope of the Act, Garris suffered from a “catastrophic injury” while responding to what he reasonably believed was an emergency. The Court found that the term “catastrophic injury” was “synonymous with an injury resulting in a line-of-duty disability, and the award of a line-of-duty disability pension conclusively establishes a catastrophic injury.” As Garris was awarded a line-of-duty disability pension as a result of the injury sustained in the March 1 incident, Garris clearly suffered a catastrophic injury.

Where Garris faltered was on the second part of the test – whether he was injured in response to what he reasonably believed to be an emergency. The Court found that he was not. The Court observed that “the training exercise here was a controlled exercise. The exercise here did not involve smoke or fire. Although Garris chose to treat the exercise like an actual emergency, the record reflects that the purpose of the exercise was to give firefighters the opportunity to become comfortable with the Sterling F4 in a low-pressure setting before the device went into service.

“Moreover, because the Village’s firefighters were not familiar with the device, it was not an unforeseen circumstance that firefighters might descend more rapidly than they expected. However, the exercise involved the use of a safety line to prevent firefighters from actually falling. Indeed, there was no way for a firefighter to fall to the ground.”

Garris argued that the safety line did not “preclude him from reasonably believing that he was in imminent danger” when he started to descend more quickly than expected. Again, the Court was unimpressed: “Be that as it may, Garris’s underlying theory of the danger that he claims gave rise to an emergency is factually untenable. The crux of Garris’s claim that he reasonably believed that an emergency existed – i.e. that he was in imminent danger (notwithstanding the safety line) and that an urgent response was required – because if he continued to fall he would land on his head. Under this theory, the urgent response that was required was for Garris to reorient himself so that he would land on his feet. This theory does not align with the facts established by the record.”

Garris v. Village of Lake Zurich, 2016 IL App (2d) 161107-U (Ill. App. 2017).