Byline: Barry Bridges
The state Supreme Court has sided with the Municipal Employees' Retirement System in holding that Rhode Island law does not create a conclusive presumption entitling a cancer-stricken firefighter to an accidental disability pension without proof that his condition was a result of his employment.
"There is no express language in chapter 19.1 of title 45 that grants a conclusive or rebuttable presumption that any diagnosis of cancer among firefighters is an occupational cancer," Justice Gilbert V. Indeglia wrote for the four-member majority in quashing a Workers' Compensation Court decree to the contrary. "[W]e conclude that the General Assembly intended that an occupational cancer be proven before a firefighter is entitled to receive occupational cancer benefits."
The case was brought by petitioner Kevin Lang, who worked for the Cranston Fire Department from 1996 until he was diagnosed with colon cancer in September 2012, when the city placed him on "injured on duty" status. Lang applied for accidental disability benefits in January 2014.
The MERS Retirement Board denied the application when three independent medical examiners could not causally connect Lang's condition to his occupation as a firefighter. However, Workers' Compensation Court Judge Dianne M. Connor was of the view that the "firefighters' cancer statute," codified as 45-19.1-1 et seq., creates a conclusive presumption and that Lang was therefore not required to show a causal connection through medical evidence. Connor's reversal of the board was upheld by the Appellate Division.
Taking up the mantle in parsing the statutory language on certiorari review, Indeglia pointed out that any conclusion that the law established a presumption would render meaningless the specific definition that the General Assembly gave to the term "occupational cancer."
And contrary to the assertions of petitioner Lang, Indeglia wrote that the legislative findings in 45-19.1-1 do not establish a conclusive presumption that every firefighter's cancer is due to injury from exposures while performing his duties. Indeglia instead viewed the findings as "general statements regarding the harsh conditions that firefighters can face or often face" and are not declarations that every firefighter has been harmed by them.
Moreover, he said the lower court's construction could bring "absurd results."
"For example, a conclusive presumption that all cancers in firefighters are occupational...