Municipal police employers who thought that their payment of benefits to injured police officers under General Municipal Law Section 207-c shielded them from tort claims brought by those injured officers need to think again.

Some municipal police employers, particularly larger ones, opt not to carry workers’ compensation coverage.  Such coverage is costly.  Moreover, there was a thought that Section 207-c, which provides injured officers with payment of full (tax free) salary during their absence from work and covers the cost of their medical treatment and health care, was an injured officer’s exclusive remedy against his/her employer and shielded the employer from lawsuits filed by its police employees.  Until recently, that belief had the support of multiple state appellate court decisions.  For example, in Nieves v. City of Yonkers, the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that an officer, having received Section 207-c benefits, could not assert a tort claim against his employer.  Similarly, in Damiani v. City of Buffalo, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, held that an officer’s right to the receipt of Section 207-c benefits was the exclusive remedy for injuries caused by a fellow officer.

However, the recent New York Court of Appeals holding in Diegelman v. City of Buffalo dispels that notion.  In that case, the Court of Appeals held that “where the municipal employer has elected not to provide coverage pursuant to the Workers’ Compensation Law, a police officer who suffers a line-of-duty injury caused by the employer’s statutory or regulatory violations may pursue a section 205-e claim.”  In reaching its decision, the Court evaluated the interplay between Section 207-c, General Municipal Law Section 205-e, and the Workers’ Compensation Law.  Section 205-e allows police officers to bring tort claims for line-of-duty injuries in certain delineated instances.  Conversely, the Workers’ Compensation Law completely precludes an employee from pursuing a tort claim against his employer for injuries sustained in the course of employment.

The Diegelman majority reasoned that while the language in Section 205-e precludes a tort action by recipients of workers’ compensation benefits, it makes no mention of Section 207-c, though it certainly could have if the legislature so intended.  The majority also rejected the argument that because of the superior benefits provided by Section 207-c, it “is essentially a super workers’ compensation scheme for police officers.”  Perhaps most tellingly, the majority also noted that prior judicial efforts to restrict the breadth of Section 205-e had all been met with legislative enactments abrogating those holdings.

Judge Pigott authored a dissenting opinion in which he noted that Section 205-e was intended as a cost-savings measure for the benefit of the municipal employer.  In other words, it was intended to allow the injured officer to sue third parties while permitting the employer to file a lien and recoup its Section 207-c costs from that third party wrongdoer.  Judge Pigott also questioned the logic of allowing an injured police officer who receives Section 207-c benefits to pursue a tort claim against his/her employer while precluding other employees who receive inferior benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Law from doing so.

Diegelman should serve as a wakeup call.  Municipalities that do not provide workers’ compensation coverage for their police officers should engage in a renewed analysis and determine whether the costs and potential liability inherent in defending police officer tort claims outweigh the cost of securing and providing workers’ compensation coverage.