Florida: “Firefighter’s Presumption” Aids Corrections Officer’s Heart Disease Claim Related to Unknown Virus Infection

Construing Florida’s “Firefighter’s Presumption” [see § 112.18(1), Fla. Stat.], in Walters v. State, 2012 Fla. App. LEXIS 17887 (1st Dist., Oct. 16, 2012), a state appellate court recently reversed a finding by a Judge of Compensation Claims that had denied workers’ compensation benefits to a state corrections officer for the care and treatment of his heart disease.  

The Florida statute, like that enacted in a number of other jurisdictions [see Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, § 52.07], creates a rebuttable presumption of occupational causation for disabling heart disease (among other health conditions) suffered by certain police officers, firefighters, and correctional officers who meet certain prerequisites. The presumption is dispositive unless rebutted by medical evidence. In Florida, in order to rebut the presumption, the medical evidence must prove the disease was caused by a specific, non-work related event or exposure.

In the instant case, the parties stipulated to the factual predicate necessary to give rise to the statutory presumption of occupational causation. His pre-employment medical examination revealed no heart disease of any kind, but in December 2009, he developed a cold-like condition and eventually was treated for “heart symptoms.” Hospitalized in a major medical facility, he was diagnosed with myopericarditis and cardiomyopathy.

Relying on the presumption, he filed a workers’ compensation claim. The JCC acknowledged that the statutory presumption arose, but ruled the State had rebutted the presumption with testimony that the claimant’s heart disease was attributable to viral gastroenteritis.

On appeal, the court reiterated that once the presumption arose, it remained with the claimant and was itself sufficient to support an ultimate finding of industrial causation unless overcome by evidence of sufficient weight to satisfy the trier of fact that the covered condition had a non-industrial cause. Here it was clear that claimant’s heart condition was caused by gastroenteritis, as a result of an unnamed virus. The court indicated that the JCC’s finding that the gastroenteritis was not work-related was not supported by competent evidence. Physicians indicated that it was impossible to say where claimant caught the virus. Nor were they able to identify the specific type of virus. The court indicated that the State had the burden to prove the claimant did not get the virus at work, and it failed to carry its burden.

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