After his workers’ comp claim for PTSD was denied by his county and the industrial commission, John France’s only hope was the Arizona Court of Appeals.
GILA COUNTY, Ariz. — A major Arizona court decision came down in favor of law enforcement officials struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a former Gila County Sheriff’s sergeant after he was involved in a deadly shooting.
“Fun. Crazy,” said John France while describing his nearly 40-year career in law enforcement. “Enjoyed the majority of it. Obviously, the last part wasn’t so good.”
As a sergeant with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, France responded to too many calls to count over the years, so in June of 2017, when he was dispatched to a man threatening suicide, he didn’t think twice.
“99.9% of suicidal threat calls are just that: threats. And most people don’t go through with it,” France said.
But this call was different. France and his partner approached the two-story house. After clearing the perimeter, they moved in. That’s when the suspect came barreling down the stairs armed with a shotgun pointed straight at the officers. France begged the suspect to drop it.
“I see the muzzle come up that much farther and the decision is made. I fire one time and Cole fired about the same time. I was closer than you and I are now that I could see the look on his face, see the impact,” France said.
“I was angry that I had to take another person’s life needlessly because all he had to do was stop and do what he was supposed to do.”
France would later learn the suspect was a veteran struggling with PTSD, something France would develop less than a day after the shooting.
“Went to bed, got up, made it about halfway from the bedroom to the kitchen for my morning cup of coffee and just lost it. Turned to my wife and said, ‘Get a hold of somebody. I need help,'” France described.
France knew what signs to look for because he had been trained to do peer support after critical incidents.
But what he didn’t know was how hard it would be to get help.
“They had no clue what to do,” France said of his department.
France filed a workers’ compensation claim, hoping Gila County could help pay for mental health services.
His claim was denied less than a month later.
“What’s this been like for you?” asked 12 News Reporter Bianca Buono.
“Painful to watch my husband become somebody that he never was before. Self-doubt, hurting, frustrated,” said Dottie France, John’s wife.
While battling with his mental health, France teamed up with attorney Matt Fendon to fight the denied claim at the industrial commission.
Arizona law states that in order to get coverage for mental injuries, something “unexpected, unusual or extraordinary” has to happen.
“If his case doesn’t meet the requirements which one does?” Fendon asked.
But the industrial commission’s judge said what happened to France was none of those things.
“I think, ultimately, the statute’s unconstitutional. It definitely needs an update,” Fendon said.
So they kept fighting, taking their case to the Arizona Court of Appeals. Then, after nearly two and a half years, they won.
“To have the court of appeals … it was powerful. It was a good thing. When you’re having to fight for something that should be given to you right off the bat? What did I work for? What did I spend 40 years protecting the public for?” France said through tears.
“Not only is it great for John, it’s great for first responders. It’s a published decision, so it essentially creates precedent,” Fendon said.
That means that, hopefully, because France never gave up, getting help with PTSD won’t be as difficult for officers in the future.
“If this case helps one other, then it was worth it,” France said.
A spokesperson from the industrial commission released the following statement regarding the court’s decision:
“Industrial Commission Administrative Law Judges follow the law as written in Arizona statute and as interpreted by Arizona Courts. As such, the Commission’s Administrative Law Judges will follow the new interpretation set forth by the Court of Appeals in the France case.”
France says he and his wife are now devoting their lives to paying it forward, helping train officers and their spouses on recognizing and dealing with PTSD.