In 2007, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office informed Alan Hull, then the fire chief at the Estacada Rural Fire District, that one of his employees had embezzled $1.9 million from the district. The Sheriff’s Office then asked Mr. Hull to go undercover and gather evidence of this employee’s wrongdoing, which Mr. Hull agreed to do. When information about the entire sordid affair came out, the public was, somewhat understandably, incensed and called for many of the people involved, including Chief Hull, to be removed from their positions.
So far, this is an unfortunate, but not particularly strange or unique incident. However, as Business Insurance recently reported, there is a twist that makes Chief Hull’s predicament interesting to people who follow employment law issues in Oregon. Hull claims that, as a result of the stress he endured both from working undercover with the Sheriff’s Office, as well as from the public anger directed at him in the aftermath of the revelations, he suffered a heart attack. He then filed a workers’ compensation claim against his employer, the Estacada Rural Fire District, claiming that the firefighters’ presumption in Oregon’s workers’ compensation laws mean that his allegedly work-related health issue is covered. Different Oregon courts have been going back and forth on Hull’s claim, but the latest appellate court ruling has found against him.
Worker’s Compensation in General
Workers’ compensation is a no-fault system that is based on efficiently providing benefits to injured workers without clogging up the civil litigation system. Essentially, it is a bargain between workers and employers that allows workers to obtain a set amount of compensation whenever they have an illness or injury that results from actions “within the course and scope” of their employment, regardless of who is at fault. Under normal circumstances, the burden is on most workers to prove “material causation,” which means that it is the worker’s responsibility to show that the illness or injury resulted from work-related cause.
The Firefighters’ Presumption
The situation is different for firefighters. It may be something of an understatement to say that firefighters participate in a uniquely dangerous job. Running into burning buildings presents some obvious and immediate hazards, but there a number of hidden risks as well – long-term exposure to smoke, or exposure to different chemicals and building materials, for example. In response to the fact that firefighters regularly put themselves at such risk for the greater good, workers’ compensation laws in Oregon, as in many states, have a firefighter’s presumption.
The firefighter’s presumption essentially flips the normal burden in workers’ compensation laws. Instead of it being the employee’s responsibility to show that the injury or illness had a work-related cause, the system presumes that there is a correlation, and will compensate the firefighter unless the employer can show that the injury was not related to work. Of course, not all kinds of medical conditions are covered under the firefighters’ presumption; but the law presumes that things like hypertension, cardiovascular issues (including heart attacks), and certain types of cancer are naturally connected to a firefighter’s professional work.
In Chief Hull’s case, he tried to argue that his workers’ compensation claim for his heart attack should be judged under the lenient standard of the firefighters’ presumption. An administrative judge disagreed, saying that Hull’s claim should actually be held to a heightened standard, for mental disorders. Under that standard, which the judge claimed Hull failed to meet, Hull would have had to show that his mental stress was work-related. While the Oregon Worker’s Compensation Board overturned the administrative judge’s ruling – applying the firefighters’ presumption in Hull’s favor – the appellate court sided with the judge. The appellate court ruled that an employee who normally qualifies for the firefighters’ presumption, but makes a claim involving a mental disorder, the higher standard applies before they can be compensated.
Chief Hull’s claim provides a great deal of insight into how workers’ compensation claims are judged, and how far the courts are willing to go in terms of the firefighter’s presumption. One can imagine that Hull believes they did not go far enough for him.
If you or someone you know is dealing with a workers’ compensation issue, please contact one of our attorneys, who can help you pursue your claim.