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Johnson v. Retirement Board

OPINION FILED DECEMBER 19, 1986.

JAMES A. JOHNSON, APPELLEE,

v.

THE RETIREMENT BOARD OF THE POLICEMEN'S ANNUITY AND BENEFIT FUND, APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Appellate Court for the First District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, the Hon. Arthur L. Dunne, Judge, presiding.

CHIEF JUSTICE CLARK DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

On October 12, 1982, the plaintiff, James A. Johnson, a Chicago police officer, applied for duty-disability benefits to the defendant, the Retirement Board of the Policemen's Annuity and Benefit Fund. According to the Illinois Pension Code, a policeman who becomes disabled is entitled to "ordinary" disability benefits equal to 50% of his salary at the time the disability occurs. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 108 1/2, par 5-155.) However, if the policeman is injured while performing an "act of duty," he may receive "duty" disability benefits equal to 75% of his salary. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 108 1/2, par. 5-154.) The Illinois Pension Code defines an act of duty as:

"Any act of police duty inherently involving special risk, not ordinarily assumed by a citizen in the ordinary walks of life, imposed on a policeman by the statutes of this State or by the ordinances or police regulations of the city in which this Article is in effect or by a special assignment; or any act of heroism performed in the city having for its direct purpose the saving of the life or property of a person other than the policeman." Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 108 1/2, par. 5-113.

The sole issue on appeal is whether the plaintiff's injury was sustained as the result of an act of duty, entitling him to duty-disability benefits.

The factual scenario in this case is essentially undisputed. On July 20, 1981, the plaintiff was assigned to traffic-control duty at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, in Chicago. Plaintiff testified that, while at his assigned post, a citizen standing at the northwest corner of the intersection called to him for assistance regarding a traffic accident. In the process of crossing the intersection to investigate and respond, the plaintiff slipped on wet pavement and fell. As a result of the fall, the plaintiff ruptured the distal tendon in his right bicep. Corrective surgery was unsuccessful, and the plaintiff's right hand remained paralyzed.

The defendant held a hearing on the plaintiff's claim and concluded that the plaintiff was not entitled to duty-disability benefits. The defendant reasoned that the injury sustained was not the result of a special risk, but rather resulted from an act assumed by any citizen, "i.e. traversing a street"; therefore the plaintiff was not injured in an act of duty as defined in the Illinois Pension Code.

Thereafter, the plaintiff brought his complaint to the circuit court of Cook County under the Administrative Review Law (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 108 1/2, par. 5-228). The circuit court entered an order affirming the defendant's decision.

The appellate court reversed the circuit court's affirmation of the defendant's decision. The appellate court held that "whenever a police officer is injured while performing his duty of protecting and serving the public, * * * he is entitled to duty-disability benefits." (137 Ill. App.3d 546, 549.) The appellate court concluded that the plaintiff's injury occurred while "he was engaged in activities related to his duty as a police officer to protect and serve the public," thus entitling him to duty-disability benefits. 137 Ill. App.3d 546, 548.

The defendant argues before this court that police officers injured while performing those inherently dangerous duties that only police officers are called upon to perform are admittedly entitled to duty-disability benefits. Conversely, the defendant states, police officers injured while performing the more routine tasks that civilians may perform are covered by section 5-155 of the Illinois Pension Code, which provides for ordinary disability benefits. The defendant concludes that the act of walking across a street is an act assumed by any citizen, thus entitling the plaintiff to only ordinary disability benefits.

At the outset of our analysis we are mindful of the judicial role in construing a statute; namely, to ascertain the intent of the legislature and give it effect. (City of Springfield v. Board of Election Commissioners (1985), 105 Ill.2d 336, 340-41.) Where construction of pension statutes is necessary, the rule is that pension acts must be liberally construed in favor of rights of the pensioner. (See Board of Trustees v. Christy (1980), 246 Ga. 553, 555, 272 S.E.2d 288, 291.) It must be noted that the pension fund in question was "created and maintained for the benefit of its policemen, their widows and children." See Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 108 1/2, par. 5-101.

We do not find anything in the statute or in its legislative history to support the defendant's strained construction that the term "special risk" only encompasses "inherently dangerous" activities. Police officers assigned to duties that involve protection of the public discharge those duties by performing acts which are similar to those involved in many civilian occupations. Driving an automobile, entering a building, walking up stairs, and even crossing the street are activities common to many occupations, be it policeman or plumber.

There can be little question, police officers assigned to duties that involve protection of the public discharge their responsibilities by performing acts which are similar to those involved in many civilian occupations. The crux is the capacity in which the police officer is acting.

When a policeman is called upon to respond to a citizen, he must have his attention and energies directed towards being prepared to deal with any eventuality.

Additionally, unlike an ordinary citizen, the policeman has no option as to whether to respond; it is his duty to respond regardless of the hazard ultimately encountered. In the case at bar, at the time of his disabling injury, the plaintiff was discharging his sworn duties to the citizens of Chicago by responding to the call of a citizen to investigate an accident. There is no ...


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