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Judgment favoring policeman’s meth-exposure claim reversed

September 19, 2014

A police officer who claimed disability resulting from his work dismantling methamphetamine labs had a favorable trial court ruling reversed by the Indiana Court of Appeals Friday.

Randy Phelix was a police officer for the City of Mitchell in southern Indiana from November 1997 through March 2008. That’s when he told the city he was unable to perform the duties of his job due to a diagnosis of diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, systolic hypertension and renal disease that he claimed resulted from dismantling meth labs.

The city’s pension board ruled Phelix had a Class 1 impairment as defined in I.C. § 36-8-8-12.5(b)(1)(C), but the Professional Employees Retirement Fund disagreed after a review, finding a Class 3 impairment with a 20 percent degree of disability.

Phelix repeatedly requested the city pay his medical expenses under I.C. 36-8-4-5, and in October 2012, the city filed a complaint for declaratory judgment that it had no duty on Phelix’s claim. Special Judge E. Michael Hoff denied the city’s request in Lawrence Circuit Court.

“The trial court found that the City was required to pay Phelix’s medical expenses pursuant to Indiana Code Section 36-8-4-5, which concerns a city’s duty to care for police officers that have suffered a line of duty injury, and Indiana Code Section 22-3-2-2, which is part of the Worker’s Compensation Act (“WCA”),” Judge Michael Barnes wrote for the panel in City of Mitchell v. Randy Phelix, 47A01-1402-PL-88.

The case attracted amicus filings from the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns and the Indiana Municipal Lawyers Association. Joining the city, they argued that under the two statutes, “if a city procures a worker’s compensation policy covering the police department, an injured officer must look to recovery under the WCA first, not Indiana Code Section 36-8-4-5,” Barnes wrote.

“Phelix was obligated to seek payment of his medical expenses under the WCA process. Phelix started the process but did not further pursue benefits after the worker’s compensation carrier denied his claim. Although he had the opportunity to do so, Phelix did not challenge the initial determination of the worker’s compensation carrier,” the opinion says.

“We recognize the inconsistency here — PERF apparently determined that Phelix’s medical condition was at least in part a result of his employment, but the worker’s compensation carrier determined that his medical condition was not related to his employment,” Barnes wrote. “However, that inconsistency would have been better addressed by Phelix exhausting his administrative remedies in the worker’s compensation proceedings.

“Where the statutes are unambiguous, as here, we are constrained to apply the statutes as written. The trial court erred when it concluded that Phelix was entitled to have the City pay his medical bills under Indiana Code Section 36-8-4-5 despite the worker’s compensation carrier’s denial of his claim,” the panel concluded in reversing.

 

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