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Willig, Williams & Davidson Successfully Advances Worker 'Occupational Disease' Claims

March 9, 2012

One of the more interesting aspects of the workers’ compensation law is the diversity of work-related injuries and illnesses covered. Sometimes a case can be as straightforward as a simple “slip-and-fall” at work. But with increasing frequency, workplace injury litigation involves the existence of an occupational disease, in which an employee contracts a disease by virtue of the exposures faced by them at work, sometimes over decades.

Occupational disease cases can be both difficult to prove and expensive to litigate. But Willig, Williams & Davidson’s workers’ injury lawyers have experienced a number of recent successes in defending employees who have become sick because of their work.

Most recently, in a case that reached the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia workers’ compensation lawyer Michael G. Dryden, who serves as chair of Willig, Williams & Davidson’s Workers’ Compensation Department, secured occupational disease benefits for the widow of a Philadelphia firefighter who died after contracting hepatitis C. See City of Philadelphia v. Workers' Comp. Appeal Bd. (Kriebel), 29 A.3d 762, 2011 Pa. LEXIS 2518 (Pa. 2011)

The litigation in the Philadelphia matter was complicated, as the City vigorously contested the spouse’s claim that her husband’s hepatitis C was contracted over the course of a career that involved multiple exposures to blood and blood product. The Workers’ Compensation Judge, who initially decided the case, relied upon the testimony of the employer’s medical expert to rule that the firefighter’s disease was not caused by his job. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board reversed this decision, but the Commonwealth Court thereafter reinstated the Judge’s dismissal of the claim.

In October 2011, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the lower court and reinstated fatal claim benefits for the firefighter’s surviving spouse, finding that the testimony of the employer’s medical expert was based upon “irresponsible speculation.” As a result, full benefits were reinstated to the spouse.

The tortured history of the Kriebel litigation reflects the complexity involved in many occupational disease cases. But the positive outcome should prove significant as more occupational disease cases wind their way through the courts, including a recent spike in claims by firefighters who suffer from cancer.

In 2010 and 2011, Willig, Williams & Davidson attorneys Stuart W. Davidson, Richard G. Poulson and Michael G. Dryden played an integral role in rewriting Pennsylvania’s workers’ compensation law in order to recognize cancer as an occupational disease for firefighters. The legislative victory was a major achievement for the Pennsylvania Professional Fire Fighters Association and the Philadelphia Fire Fighters and Paramedics Union on behalf of firefighters and other public safety personnel across the Commonwealth. As a result, Pennsylvania now has one of the broadest and strongest “cancer presumption” laws in the country, and Willig, Williams & Davidson has been at the forefront of advancing those claims on behalf of sick firefighters and their families.

For more information on occupational disease claims under the workers’ compensation law, and particularly claims involving firefighters with cancer, contact any of the attorneys in our Workers’ Compensation Department. Our attorneys in PA understand the important differences between these claims and typical injury claims, as well as the different benefits to which these workers, affected by occupational diseases, may be entitled.

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