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The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Protects the Rights of Volunteer Firefighters (With Some Help from Willig, Williams & Davidson)

April 10th, 2019

burden of proof for volunteer firefightersBy Michael Dryden

On March 22, 2019, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court issued a decision in Bristol Borough v. WCAB (Burnett) regarding the burden of proof for volunteer firefighters in cancer claims under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act. This decision is a tremendous win for volunteer firefighters in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In the Burnett case, litigated by Willig, Williams & Davidson’s own Michael Dryden, the right of every volunteer firefighter in Pennsylvania to bring a Workers’ Compensation claim for cancer was successfully protected.

The Commonwealth Court’s decision affirmed the award of benefits to volunteer firefighter, William Burnett, and rejected arguments raised by Bristol Borough which, if accepted, would have denied all volunteer firefighters the ability to make a cancer claim by requiring absurdly specific documentation of carcinogen exposure. The Commonwealth Court agreed that it is impossible for firefighters to produce specific documentation of carcinogen exposure at emergency responses and agreed that a fairer burden was intended by the General Assembly when the cancer presumption for firefighters became the law in 2011. As noted by the Commonwealth Court, to find in favor of Bristol Borough would have rendered the cancer presumption virtually useless to volunteer firefighters.

As background, Act 46 of 2011 created a presumption that cancer suffered by veteran firefighters is related to their work duties. Since that time, questions have arisen about how the law should be interpreted, including how and whether the law applies to volunteer firefighters, and now with the Burnett case, what type of evidence is required to establish a claim for volunteer firefighters under the cancer presumption.

The Commonwealth Court relied heavily upon the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in City of Philadelphia Fire Department v. WCAB (Sladek), also successfully argued by Mr. Dryden. Together, the Sladek and Burnett decisions establish a fair burden of proof for all firefighters diagnosed with cancer. As a result, more career and volunteer firefighters will have access to benefits after being diagnosed with the disease, as intended by the General Assembly.

If you are interested in reading the decision of the Commonwealth Court in Burnett, it is available here.

If you have questions about the cancer presumption, please contact us at (215) 656-3600.

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