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New Jersey Law Helps Firefighters Diagnosed With Cancer

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Firefighters in New Jersey put their lives at risk every time they respond to a call. Whether a volunteer or a paid firefighter, these first responders face many threats to their safety every time they respond to a call. Some of these threats are obvious risks, such as burns, orthopedic injuries and heat exhaustion. While members of the public are typically aware that any range of incidents could occur during a fire, like materials exploding or buildings collapsing, few are aware of the other unseen risks that these brave men and women face.  More and more scientific evidence has shown that there are also long-term health risks to our firefighters through exposure to various cancer-causing chemicals.

A multi-year study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found higher rates of certain types of cancer among firefighters than the general population. These included for example, digestive, oral, respiratory and urinary cancers.

Legislation provides protection for firefighters, other first responders

In New Jersey, our legislature has recognized the risks our firefighters face, and has taken important action to protect these essential members of our community. The legislature has enacted laws based on the scientific evidence available to make it easier for a firefighter who has been diagnosed with cancer to get worker’s compensation benefits for that diagnosis. 

Occupational exposure claims are workers’ compensation claims filed by many people throughout our State, across many different industries. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, and the doctors or experts have related that diagnosis to something the person was exposed to at work, any person can file a workers’ compensation claim for benefits. 

A cancer diagnosis can be covered under a workers’ compensation claim, but in general, the worker must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that their diagnosis was work-related. This can be a complicated, costly and time-consuming process that occurs while the worker is receiving treatment.

Before 2019, despite the added risks that they face, New Jersey firefighters who were diagnosed with cancer were required to undergo the same process mentioned above by proving the diagnosis was caused, aggravated, exacerbated, or accelerated by their exposure while volunteering or working as a firefighter. Despite the increased risks they faced on the job, no laws provided any extra protection for them regarding a cancer diagnosis. 

A 2019 state law changed that.

On July 8, 2019, Governor Phil Murphy signed the Thomas P. Canzanella Twenty First Century First Responders Protection Act into law. The legislation makes significant changes to occupational disease claims for New Jersey firefighters.

Thomas P. Canzanella was a deputy chief with the Hackensack Fire Department who took part in rescue and recovery operations at Ground Zero on September 11, 2001. He was a strong advocate for occupational disease coverage for firefighters and other public safety workers.

Firefighters face many different types of situations when they respond to a call and there are a number of ways they can come into contact with hazardous chemicals. Some substances such as benzene and formaldehyde are released during combustion or burning of certain materials. Older structures may contain asbestos. Exposure to chemicals can also occur through the skin or eyes when removing turnout gear. Those occupational hazards can put the firefighter at increased risk for many diseases that may not be diagnosed for years.

The 2019 law helps firefighters by shifting the burden of proof for many workers’ compensation claims involving cancer.

A presumption of compensability

Cancer is now presumed to be an occupational disease for firefighters (whether paid or volunteer) under the age of 76 who have more than seven years of active service. This presumption applies to any type of cancer that is caused by exposure to heat, radiation, is a known or suspected carcinogen as defined by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Leukemia is the only type of cancer mentioned by name in the law, but it applies to many other types, such as cancers of the lung, brain, kidney or prostate; melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers; cancers of the esophagus and intestine; and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Again, any cancer that is caused by heat, radiation, or a carcinogen is covered by this presumption.

Employers (and workers’ compensation insurance companies) may challenge these claims, but they must prove there is a greater than 50 percent chance that the cancer did not occur as a result of workplace exposure.

Still, there can be a lot of money at stake for insurance carriers, so some may try to fight the claim. In approved claims, workers’ compensation benefits pay the full cost of all reasonable and necessary medical treatment. This can include surgery, hospitalization, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and medication. The cost of cancer treatment can be tens of thousands of dollars per month.

Despite the Canzanella Act, insurance carriers will most likely still decide to try to dispute these claims. They have the resources and legal representation that they use to protect their own bottom line, not the person suffering from a devastating cancer diagnosis.

That’s why it is important for all workers who have cancer due to a work-related exposure to have experienced legal representation.

How a lawyer can help

If you have been diagnosed with cancer or another work-related illness, an experienced workers’ compensation attorney can help you navigate the claims process to ensure you get the benefits you are entitled to receive.

Employers and insurance companies will look for any reason to deny claims. An experienced attorney who knows the workers’ compensation system can make sure that all requirements are met for proving your case in Court. Your attorney can explain to you the process from the outset and assist you and your family dealing with this extremely difficult time in your lives.

An experienced attorney will provide information about what to expect throughout the process, for example, what will happen at an independent medical examination (IME) set up by the insurance company. While the insurance company is permitted to set up an IME under the state’s workers’ compensation system, the doctors chosen are often well versed in the insurance companies’ procedures and are generally hired because the insurance company knows what they will say. Under the law, insurance companies can choose the doctor who will examine you. It is their hope that the doctor will give them justifications to deny or to minimize your claim. Your lawyer can ensure that the doctor has all necessary information about your illness and may consult experts to contradict the insurance companies’ arguments. 

Fighting for the best possible outcome

The goal of insurance companies is often to deny or minimize your claim. They want to avoid paying money, and from the date of the accident to the date of your settlement will try to protect their own profit margins. Your attorney’s goal is to get you all the benefits you are entitled to, including all of your medical expenses covered, your wages reimbursed pursuant to worker’s compensation laws on temporary disability, and either Permanent Partial Total Disability Benefits or Permanent Total Disability Benefits depending on the severity of your injury or illness. 

If your claim for benefits is denied, an attorney can guide you through the process of challenging that denial through the Court system. The worker’s compensation court system is a complicated and specialized area of law that requires experience to navigate. A workers’ compensation lawyer will exhaust all available remedies on your behalf, including filing with the Appellate Division of the Superior Court and all the way up to the New Jersey Supreme Court should that become necessary and the circumstances allow.

If you suffered a work-related illness, consult with an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer today who can review the details of your claim and go over your options. Schedule a free consultation today.

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Founded in 1927, Shebell & Shebell, LLC fights for the rights of injury victims. We handle workers’ compensation, construction accidents and personal injury claims. We have office...