From joint wear-and-tear injuries from retrieving heavy objects to lung damage from smoke inhalation, firefighters can be especially susceptible to the types of on-the-job injuries that are normally covered by workers' compensation insurance. But, until very recently, Montana — like many other states — had a far more stringent list of regulations governing the workers' compensation structure for firefighters, making it tough for firefighters to receive payment for cancer and other occupational health hazards, even when they hired an attorney.
That all changed earlier this year when the Governor signed a bill designed to significantly streamline the way workers' compensation claims are handled. Read on to learn more about how this law is poised to reshape the workers' compensation landscape for Montana firefighters, as well as how an attorney can help you navigate the process.
What Workers' Compensation Benefits are Available to Firefighters?
Firefighters are generally entitled to workers' compensation payments for on-the-job injuries like burns, contusions, fractures, and smoke inhalation. But, long-term exposure to smoke and burning building materials can significantly increase one's risk of "black lung," lung cancer, emphysema, and a host of other serious or even terminal respiratory ailments.
Unfortunately, firefighters who have been diagnosed with one of these ailments can find it tough to fight for workers' compensation benefits, as insurers may argue that there's insufficient evidence that the firefighter was exposed to significant amounts of smoke or soot on the job. Firefighters who have only been on the job a few years and develop a lung disease or disorder can find it all but impossible to obtain workers' compensation benefits.
What Will This New Law Change?
Effective July 1, Montana firefighters will no longer have the burden of proof in workers' compensation claims. Insurers will only be able to deny a firefighter's claim if the insurer can prove that the firefighter didn't receive enough smoke or soot exposure to develop the disease at issue. Previously, firefighters were required to affirmatively prove that their illness was caused by on-the-job smoke exposure, which, for many, was an impossible task.
In addition to mesothelioma (or the type of lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure), this new law provides broad coverage for "presumptive diseases" like esophageal cancer, brain cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and colorectal cancer. Heart attacks are also classified as a presumptive disease for firefighters, as many of the substances to which a firefighter may typically be exposed can weaken the heart muscle and blood vessels.
Do You Still Need an Attorney?
Because this law is so new and significantly changes the burden of proof in Montana workers' compensation cases, it's still a good idea for an injured or disabled firefighter to consult a workers' compensation attorney before signing any legal documents.
Even with a lower burden to establish one's right to workers' compensation, determining the proper payment amount can be far tougher, and workers' compensation insurers (like all insurers) will try to settle claims for as little as possible. Having legal advocacy on your side can ensure your rights are protected.