Fight over Bellevue firefighter’s benefits goes to Supreme Court

Fight over Bellevue firefighter’s benefits goes to Supreme Court

The fight between two former Bellevue firefighters with cancer and the city of Bellevue and the Department of Labor went before the state Supreme Court last week.

Veteran firefighters Wilfred Larson and Delmis Spivey both sued the city and the department after their insurance benefits were rescinded when they were diagnosed with malignant melanoma.

Larson — who had been a firefighter and EMT for 30 years — and Spivey — a 20-year veteran — were diagnosed with skin cancer in 2009 and 2011, respectively.

Though state law defines malignant melanoma as an occupational disease for firefighters, the city convinced the Board of Industrial Appeals to reverse the insurance benefits awarded to the two men.

“Firefighters are exposed to a wide variety of potential carcinogens,” lawyer Tim Friedman told the justices on Nov. 17, quoting a bill passed by state House of Representatives.

While the exact cause of melanoma cannot be determined, lawyers for the city continue to argue that Larson and Spivey’s cancer could have been caused by other factors.

Expert testimony introduced during their first appeal stated that melanoma isn’t caused by what the firefighters were exposed to during fires or other emergency calls.

The law passed by the Legislature in 2002 states that employers must accept cancers like melanoma as an occupational disease for firefighters unless they can prove by a preponderance of evidence that other factors like lifestyle and exposure from other employment or nonemployment activities are the cause.

The amendment to the state code was based on a 1990 review that found firefighters have a statistically higher risk of melanoma.

During the 2015 appeal, 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 must produce a preponderance (or, superior in weight or power) of evidence to overturn the lower courts’ ruling, lawyers for Spivey argue, not just contrary evidence.

Both the King County Superior Court and the state Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the firefighters.

The court’s decision will be released sometime in the next few weeks.

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