City of Austin drops lawsuit in workers’ comp case

The City of Austin has decided to drop a lawsuit against firefighter Carrie Stewart who had filed for workers’ compensation after being diagnosed with breast cancer. This battle between Stewart and the city has gone on for three years.

Stewart is a lieutenant with the Austin Fire Department. She was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer in 2015 after 15 years with the fire department. According to a letter from Texas Oncology, there is a certain possibility that Stewart’s risk for cancer was affected by her work as a firefighter and the resulting regular exposure to carcinogens.

When Stewart first filed for workers’ compensation to cover medical expenses and lost wages, the Texas Department of Insurance-Division of Workers’ Compensation ruled in her favor. The Department concluded that her breast cancer was work-related. This favorable ruling fell in line with the 74% of states that require employers to have workers’ comp coverage in the instance of cases such as these. In 2017, the city filed a petition for judicial review to reverse the ruling and sued Stewart for attorney fees, stating that her breast cancer was not work-related and that she was not entitled to benefits from the city.

In their petition, the City of Austin stated that while the International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that firefighters may experience an increased risk in developing certain cancers, such as lung cancer, they have not made conclusions on other cancers, such as breast cancer.

Stewart and her attorney, Brad McClellan, were shocked at the city’s rebuke. As they see it, firefighters serve the city in commercial and residential spaces and the city should help them in return. Just four property classes — apartments, hotels, offices, and facilities that care for the sick — make up half of all high-rise fires. A city’s firefighters protect these properties and countless others.

McClellan says that this disregard of firefighters’ cancer claims has been seen across the state of Texas. Similar to Stewart’s case, firefighters have been taken to court over filings of workers’ compensation. According to the Texas Department of Insurance, over 90% of the 117 workers’ compensation claims filed by Texas firefighters with cancer in the past six years have been denied. Unions say that Texas cities are ignoring a state law passed in 2005 that requires the government to presume that any cancer in firefighters is caused by exposure to carcinogens while on the job.

After almost a year and a half of meeting with city leaders to fight the lawsuit and wait for a ruling to be made, Stewart started collecting stories from other denied firefighters across the state and went to the media. After taking these steps to get the message out, Austin decided to drop the lawsuit against her. Stewart hopes that there is more transparency in future cases like hers so that people don’t have immense expenses lingering over them.

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