News & Events

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Issue Victory to Pennsylvanian Municipalities in Occupational Disease Cases Brought by Firefighters With Cancer

/ 23.Oct, 2018
Philadelphia, PA, October 23, 2018: Kristopher Kachline, Esquire, a partner at Swartz Campbell, earned a victory for minicipal entities on October 17, 2018, when the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania adopted a common sense standard in occupational disease cases. The sharply-divided Court confirmed that a firefighter who is seeking benefits for cancer under the Workers’ Compensation Act has the burden to prove that he or she was exposed to a carcinogen designated as a Group I carcinogen by the IARC and that the carcinogen at issue bears a general causal relationship to the cancer alleged to be an occupational disease.

In a hard-fought case, the Workers’ Compensation Judge and the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board both ruled that the City of Philadelphia firefighter, now Deputy Chief Scott Sladek, had little to no burden when he made a claim that he developed melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer, as a result of occupational exposure to carcinogens. The WCJ and the WCAB both ruled that Mr. Sladek only needed to prove that he was a firefighter for more than four years and came to the job cancer-free beforer the presumption of causation for occupational disease cases shifted the heavy burden to the City of Philadelphia to prove that his cancer was not caused by occupational exposure to carcinogens. Claimant’s burden was easily overcome and the WCJ granted Mr. Sladek’s claim. The WCAB affirmed both the standard applied and the overall outcome of the case.

On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, the City’s arguments prevailed. The City argued that there is a burden on the firefighter to prove that he or she had occupational exposure to a carcinogen that bears a causal relationship to the cancer alleged to be an occupational disease. In a unanimous en banc opinion, the Commonwealth Court reversed the WCAB and the WCJ, citing a misinterpretation of the statutory language that appeared to be specifically selected by the General Assembly to place an initial burden on a firefighter.

The Supreme Court’s majority opinion, in which four justices made up the majority, reflects a similar burden than that of the Commonwealth Court, though the Supreme Court chose different language to achieve the same goal. The majority states the burden as requiring “the claimant to establish a general causative link between the claimant’s type of cancer and a Group 1 carcinogen. Chief Justice Saylor voted to affirm the Commonwealth Court’s opinion, while Justices Mundy and Dougherty voted to reinstitute the non-existent burden offered by WCJ and WCAB. The burden expounded by the majority adopted a standard that gives municipalities the ability to defend frivolous claims, which would have been substantially increased if the Court adopted the WCJ’s or WCAB’s standard.

The second issue before the Court examined the evidence necessary to rebut the presumption, if applicable to a case. The Court held to a long-cited standard in occupational disease cases, which required that the employer provide an expert opinion that includes an examination of the claimant’s disease. An opinion challenging the concept of presumption is not adequate to rebut. That opinion must offer a non-occupational alternative cause for the disease instad of simply implying that the disease is of unknown etilogy.

The Court’s ruling does not fundamentally change the way occupational disease case are litigated. The Court did, however, provided some clarity into the types of evidence that are relevant to the initial burden stage and the rebuttal stage.

Most importantly, the Court remanded the matter for further consideration of whether the Frye Standar applies in workers’ compensation cases. In other cases litigated by Mr. Kachline, judges and the intermediate appellate courts have accepted his argument that in fact the Frye standard does apply to expert testimony in workers’ compensation cases and can serve to limit or exclude expert opions that do not confirm to generally accepted scientific methodologies.

To discuss this matter further, please contact Kristopher Kachline @ (215)299-4276.