ANNAPOLIS – An off-duty Montgomery County police officer who accidentally shot himself in the leg is entitled to worker’s compensation, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled Friday.
In an unreported decision, setting no precedent, the court upheld a lower court ruling that Officer Richard W. Winkler should get compensation for his injury.
On July 18, 1994, Winkler, now retired, drove his police car to a softball field to play a non-work related game. He was required to carry his handgun while driving that car.
When he arrived at the field and got out of his vehicle, the gun was still in the waistband of his shorts. As tried to remove the weapon, it discharged, sending a bullet through his right hip and lodging in the lower part of his right hamstring.
Winkler filed a claim with the Workers’ Compensation Commission, which found that he had sustained injury in the course of his employment.
Montgomery County appealed the award, saying in its court brief that “in this case, Winkler was not scheduled to work and had not been called into service as a police officer. As such, his injury did not occur at a time related to his employment.”
But the key for the court was the Personal Patrol Vehicle Program in which Winkler participated.
Via the program, the court observed, the police department “intended that the increased presence and visibility of marked police cars, whether parked or in motion, would both deter crime and increase feelings of security among residents of the county.”
The program was why Winkler drove his marked car to the softball game, the court said.
Even though Winkler was not in his vehicle when the injury occurred, it “is a compensable injury arising out of and in the course of his employment as a Montgomery County policy officer,” said the three-judge panel of Judges Joseph Murphy, Robert Fischer and Theodore Bloom, retired.
John G. Nalls, Winkler’s Rockville attorney, added that had there been a police call in his area during the game, Winkler would have had to respond.
The bullet is still lodged in Winkler’s leg, and he wants to have surgery to remove it, Nalls said. The decision in this case will allow him to do that, since the surgery is covered under workers’ compensation and the county will pay for the operation.
Nalls said he is pleased for Winkler.
“It’s good to know that police officers who risk their lives … are protected by the law,” he said.
Winkler was out of town and could not be reached for comment.
John S. Joseph, assistant Montgomery County attorney, said the decision “sets a dangerous precedent. It’s expensive, or could be very expensive to the taxpayers.”
Joseph added, “This case goes well beyond the workers’ compensation statute. We believe this injury clearly had nothing to do with the officer performing his duty.” An appeal is under consideration, Joseph said. -30-