Belsky Weinberg & Horowitz, LLC A Personal Injury & Workers’ Compensation Law Firm

Will work comp benefits for firefighters ignite a legal battle?

There is no question that firefighting ranks as one of the single most dangerous occupations that a person can have. Indeed, this danger comes from the fact that firefighters are not only at a near-constant risk of suffering serious burn injuries or bodily harm while tending to fires and accidents, but also constantly exposed to dangerous chemicals and toxic fumes -- many of which are carcinogenic.

In recognition of this latter reality, Maryland, along with the majority of the states, has long provided firefighters diagnosed with certain types of cancer with special legal presumptions when it comes to workers' compensation benefits.

In fact, state lawmakers have expanded the number of conditions granting firefighters with at least ten years of service special legal presumptions to include lung disease, heart disease, hypertension, and nine cancers "caused by contact with a toxic substance that the individual has encountered in the line of duty."

Some of these cancers include breast cancer, testicular cancer, brain cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma.   

What these special legal presumptions do is essentially switch the burden of proof, such that the onus is not on the firefighter to demonstrate that their cancer or other condition outlined above was work-related.

Rather, the onus is on the local or state government to rebut this special presumption by demonstrating that the firefighter's condition cannot be linked to their job and that they are therefore not entitled to work comp benefits, an extremely difficult hurdle to overcome.

It's this fact, coupled with the frequently high cost of work comp awards given to injured firefighters that has many local government entities up in arms over costs and pointing to scientific research they argue undermines the link between firefighting and certain types of cancer.

Indeed, the city of Baltimore, which spent $49 million in work comp costs in 2016, is currently mounting what could prove to be a significant legal challenge against a decision by the state Workers' Compensation Commission to award substantial work comp benefits to a 22-year veteran of the Baltimore City Fire Department.

For their part, firefighters argue that the special legal presumptions are appropriate given the risks they must endure as part of the job and that the scientific research purporting to undermine the cancer link is limited at best.

It will be interesting to see how this matter unfolds in the coming years …

If you have been injured on the job, and want to understand more about your rights and your options as they relate to work comp benefits, consider speaking with a skilled legal professional.    

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