Officer Killed While Directing Traffic Covered By Federal Benefit

The Public Safety Officer’s Benefit Plan (PSOB) grants a line-of-duty death benefit to the estate of a “public safety officer” killed in the line of duty. A recent federal case addressed the questions of what types of individuals were covered as “public safety officers” and under what circumstances benefits should be paid.

The case involved Mildred Cassella, who was employed by the City of Weirton, West Virginia as a “special school zone police officer” for seven years. On the afternoon of April 12, 2002, she was struck by a sport utility vehicle while she was directing traffic in a school zone. Cassella was dragged under the vehicle for approximately 38 feet before being run over and dislodged. She eventually died of her injuries.

Cassella’s husband applied for PSOB death benefits. When the Federal Bureau of Justice Assistance denied his request, Mr. Cassella appealed to the United States Court of Federal Claims.

The Court held that Mrs. Cassella was, in fact, a public safety officer covered by the PSOB. The Court found that the PSOB was intended to cover the families of officers whose responsibility was “to enforce public safety laws in general,” not just the families of officers whose responsibility was to enforce criminal laws. The Court felt that there was no evidence that “Congress wanted to prevent the possibility that an officer killed while enforcing non-criminal laws would not be covered by the statute.”

The Court concluded that “Mrs. Cassella’s responsibilities included enforcing non-criminal laws, mainly traffic laws, and Mrs. Cassella was also an official member of the Weirton Police Department. Further, Mrs. Cassella was responsible for the welfare of the children in her crossing zone, including intervening if she witnessed any episodes of juvenile delinquency or child abuse. Therefore, Mrs. Cassella was involved in the enforcement of the law and, consequently, was a public safety officer under the PSOB.”

The Bureau of Justice Assistance also argued that even if Mrs. Cassellas was, in fact, a public safety officer, she was not acting “in the line of duty” at the time of her death. The Court easily dismissed this argument, noting that “the Senate debates on the PSOB even included reference to the exact situation here – an officer killed while directing traffic. It is undisputed that at the time of her death, Mrs. Cassella was enforcing traffic laws. Under the PSOB, because she was a law enforcement officer performing her official duties at the time of her death, she was killed in the line of duty. Therefore, Mr. Cassella is entitled to any and all benefits available to him under the PSOB.”

Cassella v. United States, 2005 WL 2671496 (Fed.Cl. 2005).

This article appears in the December 2005 issue