Plan to cover police auxiliary

Lack of compensation for man who lost leg spurs GOP action

October 11, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

Three Howard County Republican legislators announced yesterday that they would introduce a bill to provide auxiliary police officers with workers' compensation insurance in the event of an on-the-job injury.

The proposal, which will be presented to the Howard delegation of the General Assembly next year, is a response to a legal dispute over workers' compensation benefits for an auxiliary officer who lost his leg while volunteering at an accident scene last year.

On the night before Thanksgiving, West Friendship volunteer firefighter and auxiliary officer Pieter Lucas arrived at an accident at U.S. 40 and Pebble Beach Drive.

As he got out of his vehicle to direct traffic, a Chevrolet Blazer, whose driver was reaching for a cell phone that had fallen on the floor, struck him, pinning him between the two SUVs and shattering his legs.

That night, surgeons at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center amputated half of his left leg.

Since then, the county, the Police Department and the Lucas family have been in discussions over who would cover the medical expenses -- the driver of the vehicle who hit him, the family's insurance company or the county.

All the county had was an unused, limited "reimbursement" insurance policy on its small auxiliary force. That policy places financial limits on claims -- depending on the injury, say a loss of a limb -- and provides only secondary coverage.

Raquel Sanudo, the county's chief administrative officer, said that the policy was purchased in lieu of a workers' compensation policy, which she said does not apply to "auxiliary" officers under state law.

On April 12, the Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission disagreed, ordering the county to cover Lucas' medical expenses and lost wages as long as he remains disabled.

Yesterday, state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman and Delegates Warren E. Miller and Gail H. Bates vilified county administrators for challenging Lucas' application for workers' compensation benefits.

Kittleman said that he was not aware of the challenge until the day of the commission's hearing on the matter, April 11, which also was the final day of the General Assembly's 90-day session. Both the county's stance on the matter and the lack of communication were "irresponsible," Kittleman said.

"The big thing is we don't want this to happen to anyone else," he said.

Sanudo, however, said that the county had an obligation to follow the law, no matter how "heart-wrenching" Lucas' circumstances. She said that the county could have appealed the commission's decision, but did not.

"You have to look first at the law," Sanudo said. "Is he or is he not entitled to this benefit, and then you follow the law. The law does not provide for coverage. ... If it did, Mr. Kittleman would not have to introduce this legislation."

Sanudo said that she did not have an estimate on how much the accident would cost the county. Should the legislation pass, Sanudo said the county would no longer need its insurance policy on auxiliary officers.

"This is so sad, but the county did not cause the accident," she said. "Any time you have a loss of a limb by anybody who is a county employee or citizen, it's heart-wrenching. And there's a limitation on what can be retrieved from the person who caused it."

Lucas' mother, Margaretha Lucas, said that the family hired an attorney, who recommended pursuing workers' compensation benefits after they had difficulty paying his medical bills.

"There was insurance for Pieter in place, but that insurance turned out to be not sufficient for his amputation, follow-up surgeries and rehabilitation," she said. "Now the bills are getting paid."

Lucas, student at the University of Maryland, College Park, has a prosthetic leg -- the first of several he will need, his mother said.

"He walks independently now," she said. "At first he had crutches, then a cane and now he's walking independent of his cane. He's even driving his car, which is an automatic."

Howard County firefighters and police have raised more than $125,000 to help the Lucas family, police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn and West Friendship Volunteer Chief Mickey Day said.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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