The Washington Court of Appeals decided Monday in favor of a trial court that sided with a Bellevue firefighter seeking reinstatement of his industrial insurance benefits after he was diagnosed with skin cancer. The court found the city of Bellevue failed to prove Wilfred Larson’s occupation and melanoma were unrelated.
Larson had been working 30 years as a firefighter and EMT for the city when he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in 2009. The state Department of Labor and Industries awarded Larson benefits, but the city convinced the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals to reverse the decision.
The King County Superior Court again reversed the decision, finding the city did not definitively disprove Larson’s claim that his skin cancer was an occupational disease.
At trial, Larson testified to being shirtless during outdoor activities and occasionally using a tanning bed to prepare for summer trips to Lake Chelan. He also testified to being exposed to smoke, fumes and toxic chemicals as a firefighter, until he transferred to the department’s training division in 2010.
The city provided three expert witnesses to support its argument that Larson’s recreational exposure to ultraviolet light and genetic risk factors were more likely to have caused the firefighter’s cancer than his occupation.
A jury decided through a special verdict form that the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals erred by accepting Bellevue’s argument that Larson’s cancer was not an occupational disease.
In its petition to the Division 1 Court of Appeals, the city of Bellevue argued Washington code for firefighters that accepts as a presumption of fact that respiratory disease, heart problems, cancer and infectious diseases are occupational diseases is flawed because it doesn’t require a firefighter to provide medical proof tying an affliction to their occupation.
“Instead, the condition is presumed to be an occupational disease,” the court wrote about the city’s argument, “and at this point in the production of evidence, the firefighter has proved a prima facie (true until proven otherwise) case for relief.”
The Washington Legislature amended state code for firefighters seeking industrial insurance in 2002 — based on a 1990 review that found firefighters have a statistically higher risk of melanoma — to accept skin cancer as occupationally related.
Then-governor Gary Locke vetoed the section of the bill that included this finding, according to the court’s decision, which goes on to state the legislative history shows a social purpose for accepting melanoma — a disease for which the exact cause cannot be determined — as a compensable disease for firefighters.