Occupational diseases are every bit as compensable under Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation law as work-related injuries. However, causation in cases of disease is not always as easily provable. For example, a fall at work can be easily connected to an injury, but how do you prove your carpal tunnel syndrome – which develops over time and not as the result of a single incident – is in fact related to your job, as opposed to some other activity?
Recently, the Washington Supreme Court took on two cases wherein the industrial board and lower courts took a different approach to the question of proof burdens for causation of occupational disease for two firefighters. Each suffered from a condition called malignant melanoma, which is a cancer of the skin. Research has shown that firefighters have much higher rates of developing many different types of cancer as compared to the general population due to on-the-job exposure to numerous toxins.
In these cases, the question arose regarding the presumption given in favor of the worker that the disease was in fact work-related. Employer/ city had the burden of rebutting that presumption in order to deny benefits. The issue was whether the rebuttal was a factual determination properly given to a jury or a matter of law. In one case, the matter was sent to a jury and in another, the case was decided by a judge. The court ruled such matters should go before a jury, therefore it affirmed the decision in the first claim and reversed in the second.
According to court records, in the first case, firefighter W.L. was diagnosed with melanoma in 2009. He had worked as a firefighter and emergency medical technician since 1979. He filed a claim with the state Department of Labor, seeking workers’ compensation benefits for his cancer as an occupational disease. The department allowed the claim, applying the rebuttable presumption in W.L.’s favor as outlined by state law. The city appealed to the board, and at a hearing, W.L. presented testimony from a doctor who opined his condition was the result of his job. Specifically, he’d been exposed to smoke and fumes and soot and other toxic substances throughout his career. He did concede he sometimes used a tanning bed to get a “base coat” to prevent sunburns before a vacation. The city argued W.L. would have developed skin cancer even if he’d never been a firefighter. The board reversed benefits, finding W.L.’s cancer didn’t arise from any distinctive condition of his employment. Plaintiff appealed. The city sought a summary judgment, but the court denied it and the case went to a jury trial. At the close of testimony, defendant city sought a ruling from the court as a matter of law to find the city had rebutted the firefighter presumption. The court denied this motion and allowed the jury to decide. The jury found the city had not rebutted the presumption and W.L.’s disease was occupational and thus he was entitled to workers’ compensation.
The other case involved firefighter D.S., who also worked for the same department and who was also diagnosed with melanoma. he too sought workers’ compensation coverage for his occupational disease. However, the department denied the claim in 2013. D.S. appealed to the board, and the city presented evidence similar to that which had been presented in W.L.’s case (i.e., he occasionally used a tanning bed, had a history of sunburns as a child, etc.). The board held that the city had successfully rebutted the firefighter presumption and denied benefits. D.S. appealed to the trial court, and the city moved for the court to rule the presumption had been rebutted as a matter of law – which the court did. In effect, the court decided the case as a matter of law, rather than allowing it to be weighed by a jury as a matter of fact.
A petition to review with a request to consolidate the two cases was granted by the state high court, which ruled the court decided correctly in the first case to put the matter to a jury, rather than have it decided by a judge. Additionally, the court held that W.L. was entitled to attorneys’ fees for expenses incurred at the board level.
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Spivey v. City of Bellevue, Feb. 9, 2017, Washington State Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Co-Worker Liability for On-the-Job Injury, Feb. 9, 2017, Boston Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog