Although occupational illness isn’t specific to any industry, there are inevitably some professions that are at higher risk for exposure to certain toxic substances or materials that can be harmful. One of these dangerous jobs is firefighting.
Not only are firefighters exposed to intense heat and smoke, but also they have direct exposure to the public. Additionally, they may have direct exposure to harmful building materials, such as lead and asbestos, that are known to cause debilitating conditions – even cancer.
Firefighters, police officers, and other first responders and government workers seeking workers’ compensation should speak to an attorney, since there may be some special considerations. Even volunteer firefighters and first responders are covered under state statute, although there are sometimes challenges in ensuring there are adequate funds to pay these claims.
Another challenge for these workers is collecting compensation when they are diagnosed with a disabling disease or another condition. Respiratory illnesses, heart conditions, and certain cancers may be caused by exposure to smoke and other hazardous materials. However, proving causation – that is, the condition was caused by work as opposed to exposure somewhere else – can be a significant hurdle in these workers’ compensation cases.
Recently, the state supreme court in Washington ruled in two consolidated cases involving workers diagnosed with malignant melanoma that the workers were entitled to the presumption that their condition was caused by work-related exposure.
According to court records, the two firefighters both worked for the same department and were both diagnosed with malignant melanoma, a type of skin cancer.
In the case of the first firefighter, he was diagnosed in 2009, after working for 40 years as a firefighter and an emergency medical technician at the given department. He would later testify he’d been regularly exposed to smoke, fumes, soot, and toxic substances during his firefighting career. He also testified he sometimes used a tanning bed just before vacations, and he said he sometimes carried out certain outdoor activities without a shirt.
The city employer presented a medical professional opinion that the worker would have developed the condition regardless of whether he worked as a firefighter.
Although the worker had initially been awarded benefits, the board reversed this. His appeal went to a superior court jury, who ruled in the worker’s favor – a decision affirmed by the court of appeals.
In the second case, there was an almost identical set of circumstances. The worker even worked at the same department. The city presented evidence from a medical expert indicating she knew of no study that would suggest a causal connection involving exposure to smoke, soot, and toxic substances.
The board determined the city rebutted the firefighter presumption by proving by a preponderance of the evidence that his condition was caused by non-work-related issues. The decision was appealed, but the court of appeals judge ruled in the city’s favor as a matter of law.
The question for the court was whether the rebuttal of the firefighter presumption is a matter of fact or law, whether the jury in the first case was properly instructed, and whether the first attorney was entitled to collect attorney’s fees and expenses for costs incurred at the board level.
The court ruled that the question of the firefighter presumption – that firefighters are entitled to the presumption that certain illnesses, like cancer, are work-related – is a question of fact for a jury and that the jury in the first case was properly advised.
Contact the Carolina workers’ compensation lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Spivey v. City of Bellevue, Feb. 9, 2017, Washington Supreme Court
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