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Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Upholds Finding that Firefighter’s Lung Disease May Not Have Been Caused by Occupation

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania recently analyzed whether a lower court properly rejected a workers’ compensation claim by a firefighter of over 22 years.  The Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act includes a definition of occupational disease that states that firefighters of more than four years who develop diseases of the lungs and heart are presumed to have developed these in their employment as firemen.  The court in this case, however, rejected the firefighter’s allegation that this presumption was rejected by his employer’s medical expert.

Thomas Swigart filed a Claim Petition alleging he developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) after working for more than 22 years as a firefighter for The City of Williamsport (Employer). Mr. Swigart contended that he was exposed to smoke, fumes, heat, and gasses during stress and weather extremes.  He also alleged his COPD forced him to stop working.

The workers’ compensation judge (WCJ) denied the Claim Petition on the grounds that while Mr. Swigart was found to have asthmatic bronchitis, that condition did not prevent him from working as a firefighter.  The WCJ contended that Mr. Swigart did not benefit from the presumption that his lung condition was a work-related occupational disease under the Workers’ Compensation Act.  Furthermore, Mr. Swigarty had not met his burden of proving a work injury under the Act. Mr. Swigart appealed, and the Board affirmed the WCJ’s decision. Mr. Swigart appealed to the Commonwealth Court.

The appellate court rejected Mr. Swigart’s contention that the Employer’s expert witness failed to acknowledge the occupational causal presumption afforded to firefighters with diseases of the heart and lungs.  The Workers’ Compensation Act states that firefighters with more than four years of experience who then develop heart and lung diseases are presumed to have developed those diseases because of firefighting.  In this case, the medical expert acknowledged the existence of the presumption but did not attribute firefighting as the first cause of the disease. Instead, the expert relied upon the history provided by Mr. Swigart, including his many years of smoking cigarettes, and the fact that his grandparents suffered chronic lung disease and lung cancer.

In this case, the medical expert for Employer opined that Mr. Swigart’s firefighting was not the cause of his breathing difficulties, nor the cause of his condition. Furthermore, the expert argued that the cause of lung disease includes many factors. Here, the symptoms may have been triggered by firefighting, but they were not caused by the work-related activity.

The court affirmed the Board’s order denying Mr. Swigart’s claim for compensation.

The workers’ compensation attorneys at Needle Law help individuals in Pennsylvania seek benefits for their work-related injuries. If you were injured in the course and scope of your employment, contact our office today at 570-344-1266 for a no-cost consultation.

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