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    City fights ex-officer's injury claim

    Largo has asked the state Supreme Court to settle a workers' compensation dispute involving an officer hurt during his lunch break.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000


    LARGO -- Hank Klyse Jr. considered himself a dedicated police officer.

    Even after he was rear-ended on his way home for lunch on a clear March day two years ago, Klyse directed traffic at the scene of the accident.

    A few weeks after the wreck, Klyse, then a detective in the department's economic crimes unit, filed for workers' compensation for two herniations in his neck.

    But to Klyse's surprise, the city denied the claim. The argument: He wasn't performing any duties related to his job when the accident occurred.

    Two years later, the city and Klyse still disagree over whether the claim should be approved. Last month, the city asked the state's highest legal body, the Supreme Court, to settle the dispute. The court has not yet responded to the city's request.

    At the heart of the case is whether Klyse was acting as a police officer when he was hit on his lunch break.

    Klyse says yes, explaining he had his police radio on, he was in an unmarked police vehicle and he had his gun and badge with him.

    "It's part of my eight-hour duty day," said Klyse, 48, who retired from the force in October 1998. "You still respond if something happens. You can't put blinders on. You can't turn me on and off, like a light switch."

    The city thinks otherwise. Because Klyse was not on his way to a crime scene, city officials say, the workers' compensation claim should not be paid.

    By granting Klyse's claim, the city would be put in the difficult position of having to fulfill claims of other employees whether they are working or not, said Gerald Znosko, an attorney who is representing the city.

    "We're leaning toward almost 24-hour police coverage," he said. "Where are we going to draw the line between on-duty and off-duty, and is that going to lead us to other areas of workers' compensation laws?"

    Even the courts appear divided on the matter.

    In April 1999, a workers' compensation judge hearing Klyse's case in St. Petersburg ruled in favor of the city. In August, the 1st District Court of Appeal sided with Klyse.

    Case law does not offer much guidance on the issue. Attorneys on both sides say they cannot recall a similar case that has been decided in court.

    Among other law-enforcement agencies in this area, there is no clear-cut rule on this issue.

    The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office thinks all sworn officers are considered to be on duty when they are taking their lunch break.

    "They're still on duty, no matter what," said Deputy Cal Dennie, a sheriff's spokesman.

    Although St. Petersburg police officers would be covered if they were involved in a similar incident, detectives would not, because they are not paid for their lunch hour, said the city's employee relations director, Gary Cornwell.

    "We would not consider that as compensation," said Cornwell.

    Klyse, who works part time at a packing and shipping company in Largo, said he still feels numbness in his hands and has difficulty raising his hands over his head.

    Klyse, who also does consulting work, says he harbors some bitterness toward the city.

    "I didn't do anything wrong and they turned their back on me," he said. "It hurt. It hurt a lot."

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