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Modica v. Sheriff of Suffolk County

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

May 15, 2017

GEORGE MODICA
v.
SHERIFF OF SUFFOLK COUNTY & others. [1]

          Heard: January 5, 2017.

         Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on October 24, 2014.

         The case was heard by Douglas H. Wilkins, J., on motions for summary judgment.

         The Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the case from the Appeals Court.

          Noah A. Winkeller for the plaintiff.

          Allen H. Forbes, Special Assistant Attorney General, for the defendants.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Hines, Gaziano, Lowy, & Budd, JJ.

          BUDD, J.

         Through G. L. c. 126, § 18A, and G. L. c. 30, § 58, the Legislature has afforded correction officers additional compensation to close the gap between workers' compensation benefits and an employee's salary if the employee sustains bodily injury as a result of inmate violence during the course of his or her duties. The plaintiff, George Modica, a correction officer in the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department, sued the defendants -- the sheriff of Suffolk County, the Suffolk County sheriff's department, and the Commonwealth -- to obtain compensation under the statutes. At issue in this case is the meaning of "bodily injury" as the term is used in the two statutes. We conclude that bodily injury is that which results in physical injury; because the defendant has not suffered such an injury, he does not qualify for compensation under the statute.

         Background.

         The pertinent facts, taken from the record, are undisputed. As a result of breaking up inmate fights in March and April of 2010, the plaintiff began to experience an accelerated heart rate (sinus tachycardia) accompanied by lightheadedness and difficulty breathing.

         The defendants initially paid workers' compensation benefits voluntarily but soon after discontinued them. The plaintiff filed a claim for further workers' compensation benefits and, insofar as relevant here, the plaintiff underwent two independent medical examinations. Both doctors concurred that the defendant's symptoms were a physiological response to stress, that the sinus tachycardia was neither the result nor the cause of any physical harm, and that there was no evidence of structural heart disease.[2]

         The parties eventually settled the plaintiff's workers' compensation claim, stipulating that the plaintiff's injury was a physiological response to his involvement in inmate altercations. The plaintiff thereafter applied for compensation under G. L. c. 126, § 18A, and G. L. c. 30, § 58, which the defendants denied.[3] The plaintiff commenced an action in the Superior Court. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment, which were heard by a Superior Court judge. The judge denied the plaintiff's motion and allowed the defendants' motion. He concluded that the tachycardia "amount[ed] to a change in function without physical damage" and that therefore the condition was not a bodily injury entitling the plaintiff the extra compensation. The plaintiff appealed, and we transferred the case to this court on our own motion.

         D ...


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