Disabled Officer Entitled To Health Insurance For Injury Suffered By Lifting T

Under Minnesota statute, an employer has an obligation to provide health coverage to an officer and the officer’s dependents until the officer reaches the age of 65 if the officer suffers a disabling injury that “(1) results in the officer’s retirement or separation from service; (2) occurs while the officer is acting in the course and scope of duties as a peace officer; and (3) the officer has been approved to receive the officer’s duty-related pension.”

Alexander Sloan was a 21-year veteran of the University of Minnesota Police Department before he suffered a career-ending back injury. On October 8, 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sloan responded to a call about a suspicious object placed about ten feet from the main entrance to the Computer Science and Electrical Engineering building on the University’s campus. Sloan discovered that the suspicious object was a large console television set with its back panel loose and ajar.

Sloan’s initial instinct was to call the Minneapolis bomb squad, but he ultimately chose to inspect the object himself. After determining that there was no triggering device, Sloan removed the panel to see whether the console contained any explosives or other dangerous objects. Convinced that the television was benign, Sloan decided the television “needed to be moved immediately, because it was causing a lot of anxiety.” In Sloan’s professional judgment, “any delay in removing the TV would unnecessarily generate greater fear and many more nervous phone calls to dispatch.”

With other officers unable to assist, and believing himself to be in reasonably good physical shape, Sloan moved the console on his own. As he lifted the console, he “felt and heard a pop in his low back and experienced acute pain in his back.” Sloan sought immediate medical assistance and was later diagnosed with a herniated disk. Sloan was awarded duty-related pension benefits, and applied to the Public Safety Officers Benefit Eligibility Panel for a determination of whether he qualified to continue to receive his employer-provided health insurance benefits until the age of 65.

The Panel denied Sloan’s application. The Panel concluded that Sloan’s injury occurred while lifting the television and that lifting a heavy object is not an “occupational duty unique to the job.” Sloan appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

The Court overturned the Panel’s decision and awarded Sloan benefits. The Court found that there were only two tests for eligibility for benefits under the Minnesota statute: “(1) Whether an officer was approved to receive a duty-related pension; and (2) whether the officer suffered a disabling injury while acting in the course and scope of his duties.”

The Court criticized the Panel’s application of the statute: “The Panel applied a subjective and burdensome ‘unique-to-job’ test, which focused on whether an officer’s discreet activity was unique to law enforcement. The uniqueness test excludes conduct that, although mundane and ordinary, is nonetheless incidental to the proper discharge of an officer’s duties and responsibilities. The plain language of the statute does not authorize such a constricted view of qualifying conduct.”

The Court also found that Sloan’s moving of the television was within the course and scope of his job. The Court reasoned that “Sloan was responding to a call about a possible explosive device. The object proved to be benign, but this occurred less than a month after 9/11. Sloan believed, in the exercise of his professional judgment, that expediency in moving this object was prudent. Sloan reasonably believed that his actions would protect the general welfare of the public by preventing further anxiety over a conspicuous but harmless object. In this respect, Sloan was performing an occupational duty or professional responsibility when he suffered the disabling back injury.

Sometimes officers will be called upon to do things that, due to their duty and responsibility to the general public, they reasonably believe they are compelled to do under circumstances even though others could perform their task. The public asks this of our peace officers and we will not construe statutory language to frustrate this expectation.”

In the matter of Sloan, 729 N.W.2d 626 (Minn.App. 2007).

This article appears in the July 2007 issue