Thursday, May 14, 2015

Court of Appeal Gives Retroactive Effect to Firefighter Injury Presumption

The California Court of Appeal ruled statutory changes to workers' compensation injury presumptions apply to cases pending prior to the change in the statute. In doing so, the Court of Appeal overruled the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board ("WCAB") who refused to apply the presumption to a pending case. This decision could affect the presumptions involved in many workers compensation cases.
The facts of Lozano v. W.C.A.B. are tragic. William Lozano worked as a firefighter for a Department of Defense installation. Lozano was diagnosed with stomach cancer and succumbed to the disease in September of 2007. In November of 2009, Lozano's wife and two young children filed a workers compensation claim alleging the stomach cancer was work related.
On January 1, 2009 the legislature amended the Labor Code so that firefighters like Lozano could take advantage of the cancer presumption. This means the family would not need to prove Lozano's employment caused stomach cancer. Rather, the court would assume the cancer was from his employment and the employer would have to prove the cancer was not job related.
The Agreed Medical Examiner ("AME") concluded Lozano was exposed to carcinogens as part of his work activities. However, he could not conclusively say the carcinogens caused Lozano's cancer. However, if the firefighter cancer presumption applied to Lozano's case, the AME concluded the cancer should be presumed as work related.
The WCAB determined the presumption did not apply to Lozano's case. The WCAB noted Lozano was not a qualifying firefighter under the statute at the time of his death. The WCAB refused to apply the statutory change retroactively because the Legislature did not provide for retroactive application in the statute.
The Second District Court of Appeal reversed the WCAB's decision and held the presumption did apply to Lozano's claim. In general new statutes operate prospectively unless the Legislature clearly indicates otherwise. However, this general rule does not apply to new statutes that simply alter procedural or evidentiary statutes to trials occurring after enactment. Thus, if a new statute alters substantive legal rights, like who is liable for an injury, that statute cannot be applied retroactively. But, if the statute only alters procedural rights, like who has the burden of proof, the statute can be applied retroactively.
Here, the presumption test does not change who is liable for the injury, but rather who has the burden of producing evidence. Making the cancer presumption available to firefighters like Lozano only addresses the procedure to follow, not the substantive legal rights. Thus, the Court of Appeal overruled the WCAB and allowed Lozano's heirs to retroactively apply the cancer presumption.
This case should help a great number of public safety employees in the future. The instant statute only dealt with firefighters working at Department of Defense facilities. But the court's logic could be applied to any new statute which changes the evidentiary burdens for workers compensation claims. Thus, when the legislature changes the statute to help more people, any pending claims can take advantage of that new rule.