Supreme Court decides in favor of Bellevue firefighters in skin cancer case

City, Dept. of Labor fought against awarding health insurance to firefighters with melanoma

The Washington Supreme Court moved this week in favor of two Bellevue firefighters battling melanoma whose insurance benefits were rescinded by the city and state Department of Labor.

“I thought [the verdict] was great. The fact that skin cancer is a presumptive disease for firefighters, there’s kind of this promise made to us… When it was denied, it was a hard deal. Cancer’s a scary thing. Bill and I are fortunate that we were able to get through this,” one of the plaintiffs, Delmis Spivey, told the Reporter.

The case tackled a 2002 amendment to state law that makes melanoma an occupational disease for firefighters. The city and department of labor contested the allocation of industrial insurance benefits to firefighters Spivey and Wilfred A. Larson because they could not definitely prove that their cancer was caused by their work for the Bellevue Fire Department.

A physician/medical legal consultant told the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals that Larson’s work as a firefighter was likely the cause of his melanoma. Larson had been exposed to smoke, fumes, soot and toxic substances during his career.

“Firefighters are exposed to a wide variety of potential carcinogens,” lawyer Tim Friedman told the justices during their Nov. 17 hearing.

However, the dermatologist who diagnosed Larson testified that she suspected “the most contributing factor” for his melanoma was ultraviolet light exposure, according to court documents. Spivey’s dermatologist also testified that she was not aware of any evidence that linked soot, ash, smoke or toxic substances to his cancer.

It’s not possible to determine the exact cause of melanoma, according to the Mayo Clinic and the American Cancer Society, among other medical organizations. The Washington Legislature amended the state code for firefighters seeking industrial insurance to cover skin cancer following a review that found firefighters have a statistically higher risk of melanoma.

“Nobody’s saying that it’s the sole cause or only cause, but it’s probably a contributing factor,” Spivey said, adding that he hears of many fellow firefighters dying from cancer and that fire crews are exposed to many of the same toxins seen at the Hanford nuclear clean-up site.

A jury initially ruled in Larson’s favor in 2015, while a judge ruled against Spivey. Lawyers for both parties argued the case in front of the Supreme Court in November 2016.

In their Feb. 9 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict in the Larson case and overturned the verdict of the Spivey case. Larson will receive his reinstated insurance benefits, as well as money to cover lawyers’ fees.

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