At 40, Barbara S. Lawson entered the Chicago Fire Department academy, planning to become a paramedic.
Two months into her training, she bruised her leg at the academy while walking backward down a flight of stairs and carrying a table with another paramedic.
Lawson suffered nothing worse than a contusion from the Sept. 30, 1988, mishap, doctors concluded. After two weeks off, she returned to the academy but was unable to do leg exercises with weights.
She's been off work ever since.
Lawson put in a claim for lifetime disability pay.
The board of the Firemen's Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago - which oversees disability payments to 390 injured firefighters and paramedics - rejected her claim. It found that Lawson hadn't been injured in the line of duty. Instead, the board found, she had an "ongoing degenerative condition" caused by "an ongoing injury" to her left heel.
"Lawson is seeking a benefit which provides 75 percent of her salary, with yearly increases until she reaches retirement age," the pension board said in a court filing. "She only attended a few training classes. She never worked as a fire paramedic. She was only a candidate in training. She was a candidate from July 18, 1988, to Sept. 29, 1988. And in that time she missed 31 days due to problems with her left heel.
"The board could reasonably infer that Lawson is attempting to collect an enhanced benefit for an injury which was not caused by an act of duty."
But Lawson sued - and won. A Cook County judge ruled that she had indeed been hurt in the line of duty, reasoning that she'd been ordered to move the table at the academy, leading to her injury.
Lawson, now 64, has been on disability longer than most injured firefighters, though she gets one of the lowest disability payments - $30,591 a year, tax-free.
Altogether, she has collected more than $260,000 since 2003, according to records from the pension fund.
Unlike disabled police officers and firefighters, who face mandatory retirement at 63, there's no mandatory retirement age for paramedics in the Chicago Fire Department. So it appears that Lawson will be able to stay on disability - and continue drawing free health insurance - indefinitely.