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Court Clarifies Standard for Indiana Line of Duty Disability Pensions

October 9th, 2012

On October 9, 2012, the Court of Appeals of Indiana decided Indiana Public Employee Retirement Fund v. Firefighter Paul Bryson.

Firefighter Bryson injured his back while engaging in “bailout drills.”  His supervisor testified that Bryson after moving a large ladder he “then just buckled. . . . just like a wounded animal. He just collapsed[.]” All parties agreed that Bryson was injured that day.  The parties also agreed that Bryson, like many firefighters and police officers, had prior back problems.

In light of Bryson’s pre-existing back problems, PERF’s Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held Bryson was not entitled to a line-of-duty (Class 1) disability pension. The statute requires a firefighter’s (or police officer’s) disability be “the direct result” of an injury suffered while on duty. In an opinion unique to any area of Indiana law, the ALJ interpreted “the direct result” to mean “the sole and independent cause of the impairment.”  In light of this unique interpretation of law, the ALJ granted Firefighter Bryson a Class 2 disability pension.  Bryson challenged this decision in the Marion County Superior Court.

The Superior Court reversed PERF’s ALJ’s decision, finding that his interpretation of the statute was incorrect.  PERF then appealed the trial court’s decision to the Court of Appeals of Indiana.  In a 2-1 split decision the Court of Appeals panel found in favor of Firefighter Bryson. The Appellate Court criticized the ALJ’s interpretation.  The Court writes, “In application, this would necessitate that the fund member was perfectly healthy and without any pre-existing conditions, at least in relation to the part of the body impacted by an on-duty injury, in order to qualify as Class 1. We do not think that an impairment being the “direct result” of a personal injury sustained while on duty requires this exclusivity.”

Explaining its decision and announcing the standard to guide future disability determinations, the Appellate Court held:

“We conclude that a fund member who was able to perform his job duties before an on-duty injury despite having a pre-existing condition or health issue that preceded the on-duty injury, and who becomes unable to perform his job duties only after sustaining an on-duty injury, has an impairment that is the “direct result” of the physical injury or injuries sustained while on duty. This is so even if the on-duty injury created an impairment by exacerbating a pre-existing condition, so long as the pre-existing condition did not previously prevent the fund member from performing his or her job duties.”

This is excellent news for Indiana’s firefighters and police officers. However, this case is likely to be appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court.  Reimer & Dobrovolny Labor Law PC partner Keith A. Karlson represented the Professional Fire Fighters’ Union of Indiana (“PFFUI”) in this case.  PFFUI filed appeared as amicus curiae before the Court of Appeals.  We are pleased by this result and will continue to monitor this case for further developments.

Below is a link to the Court’s published opinion.

Bryson v. PERF – Appellate Decision