by Laura A. Weizeorick (Summer 2016)

The Second District recently barred a police officer’s claim under the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (“PSEBA”) as untimely in Hancock v. The Village of Itasca, 2016 IL App (2d) 150677.

David Hancock, a police officer for the Village of Itasca, was shot by a bank-robbery suspect while on duty in 1992. The gunshot fractured bones in his right hand. He returned to full duty two years later in 1994. In 2000, he was involved in an on-duty motor vehicle accident and suffered a contusion to the same hand. Hancock again returned to full duty after this second accident. However, ten months later, while chasing a suspect who fled from a traffic stop, he nearly dropped his gun. This was the first time since the 1992 shooting he needed to draw his gun under duress. He was examined by a physician and found unfit for duty. On June 13, 2001, the Itasca Police Pension Board found him to be disabled as a result of the 1992 shooting and granted him a line-of-duty disability pension.

In December of 2000 and again in July of 2003, Hancock requested that the Village pay for his health insurance premiums under PSEBA. The Village refused. The Village determined that because Hancock was injured in 1992, well before PSEBA took effect in 1997, that he was not entitled to the benefits the Act established. Ten years later, in 2013, Hancock sued the Village for health insurance premiums. Hancock contended that his injury did not predate PSEBA. He argued that he was able to serve as a police officer for eight years after his 1992 injury. Thus, his injury did not become catastrophic until he was awarded line of duty benefits in 2001. The trial court disagreed and found the injury occurred before the effective date of PSEBA, and entered summary judgment for the Village. Hancock appealed.

The Second District Appellate Court took a different approach from the lower court. It determined that the matter should instead be determined under PSEBA’s five year statute of limitations. Hancock claimed he was injured in 2001, but did not file suit until 2013. Hancock argued that although he became entitled to benefits in 2001, the statute of limitations did not start to run until 2011 when the Illinois Supreme Court determined in Nowak v. City of Country Club Hills, 2011 IL 11838, that PSEBA benefits should be paid when an officer is determined to have a line-of-duty injury and not based on the date of the actual injury.

The Second District found this to be a novel and unsupported argument. Although the “discovery rule” delays the start of the statute of limitations period until a plaintiff knows or can reasonably discover the essential facts of his injury, the discovery rule does not toll the statute of limitations period for unsettled points of law. The court reasoned that extending the discovery rule as Hancock desires would undermine the judicial system and encourage litigants to sit on their claims and wait for others to take the risk to file suit and determine points of law. Notably, because the Second District affirmed the trial court’s decision under the statute of limitations, it did not have to determine whether or not PSEBA was applicable in this case.

The Second District’s decision provides a crucial limitation for the filing of PSEBA claims. This is particularly important in light of two recent decisions: Village of Vernon Hills v. Heelan, 2015 IL 118170, which found that line of duty disability awards establish that a plaintiff’s injuries are “catastrophic” as a matter of law; and Bremer v. City of Rockford, 2015 IL App (2d) 130920, which found that occupational disease disability awards establish that a plaintiff’s injuries are “catastrophic” as a matter of law. Although Heelan and Bremer significantly enlarge the potential amount of PSEBA benefits that local governments may have to pay, Hancock holds the line on their reach. Hancock clearly provides that plaintiffs cannot use Heelan and Bremer to toll the statute of limitations and allow PSEBA benefits for injuries that were known or discoverable more than five years before an individual’s claims are filed.