The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed a decision of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission denying an assistant fire chief’s workers’ compensation claim for a heart attack presumed by statute to have arisen out of and in the course of his employment in Simpson v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, 2017 IL App (3d) 160024WC Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF.
Rebuttable Presumptions for Firefighters under Section 6(f) of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act
For a firefighter, EMT, or paramedic employed for 5 years before the filing of their claim with the Commission, section 6(f) of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act provides:
Any condition or impairment of health of an employee employed as a firefighter, emergency medical technician (EMT), or paramedic which results directly or indirectly from any bloodborne pathogen, lung or respiratory disease or condition, heart or vascular disease or condition, hypertension, tuberculosis, or cancer resulting in any disability (temporary, permanent, total, or partial) to the employee shall be rebuttably presumed to arise out of and in the course of the employee’s firefighting, EMT, or paramedic employment and, further, shall be rebuttably presumed to be causally connected to the hazards or exposures of the employment. This presumption shall also apply to any hernia or hearing loss suffered by an employee employed as a firefighter, EMT, or paramedic.
The claimant in this case was a 33-year veteran of the fire department who suffered a heart attack after becoming the Assistant Fire Chief.
In a case of first impression, the Commission found that the City of Peoria overcame the rebuttable presumption that the claimant’s heart attack arose out of and in the course of his employment and denied the claim.
Specifically, the City successfully rebutted the presumption “by providing strong evidence through its experts’ opinions along with [the claimant’s] own health history, work history and [the claimant’s] own testimony to show there were other causes of [the claimant’s] cardiovascular problems and his condition is not related to his employment as a firefighter.”
With the presumption rebutted, the Commission found that the claimant failed to prove that his heart attack was related to his employment because “at the time of his heart attack, he was at home, had just physically exerted himself, and was not performing any activity connected to his duties as a firefighter or Assistant Fire Chief.”
Moreover, “during the last 1/3 of his career, the claimant was working in an administrative capacity performing tasks of a more sedentary nature and had several cardiac risk factors including being a male of advanced age, overweight, and on medications for high blood pressure and high cholesterol.”
On appeal, the Illinois Appellate Court first rejected amicus curiae Illinois Municipal League’s argument that the claimant was not a “firefighter” under section 6(f) because he served in an administrative capacity at the time of his claimed accident. Without much analysis, the Court found that the Commission’s finding that he was a firefighter under this section could not be said to be against the manifest weight of the evidence (the relevant standard of review). The claimant had, in fact, served as a front line firefighter for 22 years before serving in managerial capacities for another 11 years.
Regarding the statutory presumption, the Court found that “once the employer introduces some evidence of another potential cause of the claimant’s condition, the presumption ceases to exist and the Commission is free to determine the factual question of whether the occupational exposure was a cause of the claimant’s condition based on the evidence before it but without the benefit of the presumption to the claimant.”
On the substantive questions – whether the presumption was rebutted and whether the heart attack arose out of the claimant’s employment – the Appellate Court, applying the manifest weight of the evidence standard, found that an opposite conclusion to the Commission’s was not clearly apparent.
The denial of the Assistant Fire Chief’s claim for benefits was affirmed.
Johnston v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, 2017 IL App (2d) 160010WC (adopting Thayer’s bursting bubble hypothesis that “once evidence opposing the presumption comes into the case, the presumption ceases to operate, and the issue is determined on the basis of the evidence adduced at trial as if no presumption had ever existed”) Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF.