Connecticut High Court Nixes Workers’ Comp for Firefighter With Heart Condition

July 17, 2023

A firefighter must be shown to have worked 20 or more hours a week to be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits under state law, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in reversing an appeals court and state workers’ compensation officials.

The high court overturned a 2021 appellate court decision that upheld orders of the Compensation Review Board and a workers’ comp commissioner that the town of Waterford had to accept a claim by firefighter Christopher A. Clark for heart disease benefits.

The statute excludes from benefits “members” who customarily work less than 20 hours a week if they entered municipal employment after September 30, 1969. The high court agreed with the town that the appellate court incorrectly concluded that the definition of “member” in the statute governing retirement and other benefits for police and firefighters does not apply to workers’ compensation benefits.

The high court found the term “member” does apply. It also found that the previous proceedings never determined how many hours Clark worked.

The town originally hired Clark as a part-time firefighter in 1992. In 1997, the town hired him full-time, and, in 2017, he suffered a myocardial infarction and underwent quadruple bypass surgery.

Clark filed a workers’ comp claim for his heart disease, which the town contested as non-compensable on the ground that the plaintiff had not been employed as a full-time firefighter until 1997 and, therefore, did not qualify for benefits.

Clark testified that, while employed as a part-time firefighter, he worked assigned shifts, and the number of shifts he was assigned to work was irregular, but he did not indicate the number of hours he customarily worked. Because Clark failed to establish that he customarily worked 20 hours or more per week when he was employed part-time, he was not eligible for benefits, the town argued.

However, the commissioner rejected the town’s reasoning and ordered it to accept the claim. In doing so, the commissioner made no finding as to the number of hours Clark worked per week as a part-time firefighter. The state review board upheld the commissioner’s award, and the town appealed to the appellate court, which affirmed the board’s decision.

The Supreme Court reversed, finding that when considered in context, the language of the law shows that the meaning of the word “member” is “clearly and unambiguously” controlled by the language that also references those employees who are members of the retirement plan.

Clark was entitled to have the commissioner decide that issue of whether he had customarily worked 20 hours or more per week before being hired full-time, and, accordingly, the high court remanded the case for further proceedings.