Jimmy Walters worked for the Florida Department of Corrections. In December 2009, he came down with a cold, but continued to work for a week. He suffered from chills and nausea on his days off and then experienced chest pain. He went to a hospital, where he was treated for "heart symptoms" and subsequently diagnosed with myopericarditis and cardiomyopathy. He was hospitalized for several days. He filed a workers comp claim, under the Sec 112.18, the "firefighter's presumption" which creates a rebuttable presumption of occupational causation for disabling heart disease.
For most workers, there would be no conceivable issue of compensability for flu-caused heart problems, but most workers do not work in the public safety arena and most workers are not protected by presumption laws. The facts of the case were not in dispute: there was a direct causal relationship between Walters's stomach flu and subsequent heart problems. His initial claim was denied by the state of Florida and by a judge on appeal, who ruled that Walters had not proven that his viral gastroenteritis was an occupational disease or that the exposure was traceable to the workplace.
The District Court of Appeal overturned the ruling and awarded benefits for the treatment of heart disease. The judges noted that the presumption statute shifts the burden of proof from the claimant to the employer: "The state had the burden to prove he did not get the virus at work, and failed to carry its burden." Some burden! The chain of causality is stark and rather crude: for public safety employees, any heart ailment caused by illness is compensable, unless the employer can trace the exposure to specific, non-work conditions. Where the cause/exposure is unknown - as in most cases - there can be no outcome other than the awarding of benefits.
By facilitating benefits to firefighters and police who may develop cancers or heart desease related to employment, law makers acknowledge the unique exposures for the people who protect us.[Back in 2008, my colleague Julie Ferguson provided the background for presumption laws.] But the generous language of these statutes may open the door to compensability far wider than any prudent legislature would intend.
The Politics of Presumption
In practice, presumption laws may create as many problems as they solve. For stressed taxpayers who ultimately foot the bills, cases of questionable compensability can be shocking: the firefighter with lung cancer who smokes two packs a day, the obese cop with heart disease, and now, the corrections officer with a flu-caused heart problem. Are these truly work related? For most people, the answer would be "no way." For the public safety employees covered by presumption laws, compensability is a given. Their safety net is woven of much finer cloth than that which protects most people in the working world.