On February 25, 2016, House Bill 216 passed the Georgia State House and is presently before the Senate. This bill creates a rebuttable presumption that firefighters who are diagnosed with cancer developed the condition as a result of performing their job-related duties. This legislation will make it easier for Georgia firefighters to receive workers’ compensation benefits if they develop cancer. While this bill has many benefits, there are a few points to clarify.
How Does the Law Currently Define “Occupational Disease?”
Under HB 216, an occupational disease is defined as one that is developed as a result of one’s “trade, occupation, process or employment…” But under the existing regulations, there is a strong caveat to this definition. Under Georgia Code Section 34-9-280(2)(D), there is a harsh exemption. If the disease is one that the general public is regularly exposed to, such as cancer, then it is not considered an occupational illness.
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How Does the Bill Change Existing Law?
The law now carves out a new exception for firefighters by clarifying that for firefighters in particular, “cancer, otherwise considered an ordinary disease of life, is shown by a preponderance of the competent and credible evidence, which shall include medical evidence, to have been attributable to the firefighter’s performance of his or her duties as a firefighter.” What this means is firefighters have a presumption of work-related illness if they develop a cancer. However, the law is still clear that evidence to the contrary may be considered.
Therefore, if a firefighter is a smoker, this could eliminate such a presumption. Likewise, it is probable that firefighters who have worked only a short time but are in advanced age may see limitations in such a presumption, because the likelihood of connection to the occupation would be less obvious. Nevertheless, this is a huge win for our firefighters, given their routine exposure to chemicals and carcinogens.
The Volunteer Exception
The bill will not make such workers’ compensation benefits available to all volunteer firefighters. Instead, if a county already offers workers’ compensation benefits to its volunteers, then the Bill would apply. If, however, the county does not offer such benefits, this Bill will not change the law by forcing such counties to provide coverage.
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What Is Not in the Bill?
As highlighted in a recent March 3, 2016 report by WALB News, the new Bill does not include changes to workers’ compensation for mental illnesses. Instead, the Bill expressly excludes coverage for mental illnesses, which often are work-related for first responders like police and firefighters. Notably, the Bill says, “Psychiatric and psychological problems and heart and vascular diseases shall not be considered occupational diseases, except where they arise from a separate occupational disease.”
Therefore, one can readily see where problems could arise trying to prove a mental illness “arises from” a separate occupational disease. A firefighter who experiences a severe trauma and develops post-traumatic stress disorder would not be provided a presumption like that provided for cancer, and would instead have the burden of proving some separate occupational disease caused it.
Only time will tell how this plays out before the Workers’ Compensation Commission and Georgia courts.
Indeed, laws change quickly. This is just one more reason why it is so important to enlist the help of an experienced team of workers’ compensation attorneys to assist with your claim. If you or someone you love is injured on the job, contact the Savannah workers’ compensation lawyers at Bader Scott Injury Lawyers for a free consultation.