Pre-Existing PTSD Does Not Bar Officer’s Disability Claim

Pre-Existing PTSD Does Not Bar Officer’s Disability Claim

Written on 09/29/2020
Will Aitchison

Detective Christopher Sardo worked for the Village of Franklin Park, Illinois. Sardo served in the United States Marine Corps from 1987 to 1991, including a tour of duty in Desert Storm. Besides physical danger, his service exposed him to several traumatic events, including fellow Marines being shot at and killed. After his discharge, Sardo experienced depression, flashbacks, and panic attacks.

Sardo became a Franklin Park police officer in January 1996. The Department of Veterans Affairs found Sardo had a military-related disability of 90%; 70% was due to PTSD, and the remainder was due to other medical issues. Sardo began receiving VA benefits for his disability in November 2000. In addition, Sardo began receiving outpatient medical treatment including counseling, anger management, and medication. Sardo was not hospitalized and continued working full time.

Sardo often attended traumatic events as a police officer. At a hearing before the local pension board, Sardo described a traumatic event involving a collision of two fire trucks. Sardo recalled seeing “one fireman stuck inside the fire truck screaming and hollering; there was another fireman lying on the ground, still breathing with his skull cracked open and his blood and brains all over the place.” Another traumatic event involved his seeing the aftermath of the shooting and death of a police officer.

On February 6, 2014, Sardo responded to a train accident in which a pedestrian died. When Sardo arrived, he saw “disintegrated body parts all over.” Sardo, as lead investigator, gathered evidence, interviewed witnesses, reviewed video of the accident, and notified next of kin. He showed the victim’s husband a photo of a dismembered body part that contained a distinctive tattoo. The husband recognized the tattoo as his wife’s, and Sardo informed him that his wife had been struck by a train and was deceased. Sardo said the husband was “screaming and screaming and I just – his screaming is something I’ll never forget in my life. He just kept screaming and running and not believing what he was told.”

After the train accident, Sardo again began outpatient treatment for depression and PTSD. Sardo became extremely depressed and experienced severe nightmares and daily panic attacks as well as thoughts of suicide. He said that incident put him over the edge, and he had not recovered from it. Sardo stopped working on May 9, 2014 and applied for a line-of-duty pension. When his application was denied, the issue wound up in the Illinois Court of Appeals.

The Village argued that: (1) an act of duty must be the sole cause of an officer’s disability and (2) Sardo’s police work cumulatively aggravated his preexisting PTSD. The Village also argued that though an officer may receive a line-of-duty pension for aggravating a preexisting physical condition, he or she may not receive a line-of-duty pension for a mental disability when the mental condition preexisted.

The Court rejected both arguments. As to the Village’s “sole cause” argument, the Court held that “the plain language of the Code states otherwise. Under the Code, if as the result of sickness, accident or injury incurred in or resulting from the performance of an act of duty, an officer is found to be physically or mentally disabled for service, the officer shall be entitled to a disability retirement pension. The words ‘solely’ or ‘entirely’ do not appear in the Code. Nor does the Code define the degree to which the resulting disability must be caused by the act of duty.”

Turning to the Village’s argument that Sardo’s pre-existing PTSD disqualified him from benefits, the Court found that under “the standard for determining whether a police officer’s mental disability qualifies for a line-of-duty pension, an officer needs to establish the disability is the result of a specific, identifiable act of duty unique to police work. A line-of-duty pension requires more than generalized police stress of multiple origins.

“Despite Sardo’s preexisting PTSD, he functioned as a police officer at a high level before the 2014 train accident. The three doctors who examined him opined that he became unable to perform his duties because of the train accident. Based on the doctors’ opinions, Sardo was not disabled until the train accident rendered him unfit to perform his duties as a police officer. A preexisting physical disability and a preexisting mental condition are treated alike. Thus, Sardo’s disability was incurred in or resulted from an ‘act of duty’ as defined by the Code.”

Village of Franklin Park v. Sardo, 2020 IL App (1st) 191161 (2020).

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