Contributed by the Law Offices of Robert E. Wisniewski
In March 2019, the Arizona Court of Appeals decided on a critical case in favor of the brave men and women who keep us safe: firefighters, first responders and police officers. The case specifically dealt with a police officer suffering from PTSD who was trying to get workers’ comp benefits. However, firefighters are also struggling to receive compensation for job-related cancers and other illnesses.
Arizona officer Benjamin Pitts, a PTSD sufferer, filed a claim for workers’ compensation after his psychologist diagnosed him with the disorder. Ultimately, his first claim was dismissed by the administrative law judge due to “untimely filing.”
The judge stated that since Officer Pitts had exhibited signs of PTSD before seeking psychiatric help, he should have filed for workers’ comp at these first symptoms. Furthermore, because of these symptoms, the officer “should have known he had PTSD.”
The appeal overturned this ruling.
Ten years ago, WILG member Robert Wisniewski was the litigator on the first case involving an Arizona police officer and PTSD. He has since been recognized nationally as being an expert in prosecuting complex workers’ compensation cases.
Even though Officer Pitts’ case is a significant step in the right direction for covering workers’ compensation cases for police, firefighters and first responders, they still face the hurdle of establishing the burden of proof in accordance with Arizona’s statutes (and many other states nationwide).
Occurrences that lead to post-traumatic stress must be substantial, extraordinary, and the result of an unexpected or unusual event. This means that it can be very difficult for these professions to seek benefits from psychiatric or psychological care.
Like the struggles to have PTSD recognized in Arizona workers’ compensation cases, firefighters all across the country are facing obstacles at the federal level to get other occupational illnesses covered by workers’ compensation. This includes various cancer diagnoses.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), compared to the U.S. population, firefighters are 14 percent more likely to die from cancer and are 9 percent more likely to have a cancer diagnosis in general.
In June 2019, legislation moved to amend the Federal Employee Compensation Act to make firefighters who have illnesses (or injuries) as a result of on-the-job exposures eligible for coverage by federal workers’ compensation. Additionally, the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act of 2019 states that NIOSH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) informed Congress about the implementation of the new legislation.
Currently, 42 states have their own presumptive disability laws that cover certain job-related diseases and cancers. The act would make federal workers’ compensation benefits equal. Additionally, the act is supported by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). There has also been a companion bill sent to the U.S. House of Representatives.