‘Almost Impossible’ To Rebut Heart-Lung Presumption

Like many states, Louisiana has a law that creates a presumption that a firefighter’s heart condition is caused by the job. While an employer can produce evidence that overcomes the presumption, Louisiana courts have referred to the employer’s burden of proof as being “almost impossible.”

A recent case involving Timothy Devall, a 28-year employee of the Baton Rouge, Louisiana Fire Department, illustrates the difficulty employers have in overcoming a heart-lung presumption. When Devall was diagnosed as suffering from coronary heart disease, he filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. The City’s denial of the claim eventually led to a decision by the Louisiana Court of Appeals.

The Court laid out the way a heart-lung presumption works: “Once a claimant established that a covered disease is at issue, and the presumption applies, the burden shifts to the employer to prove that the disease was not caused by the firefighter’s employment. The firefighter is not required to prove that the employment was the sole cause of the heart injury, so long as it is shown to be a contributing, accelerating, or aggravating factor. Thus, to rebut the presumption, the employer must prove that the firefighter’s employment did not precipitate, accelerate, aggravate, or otherwise cause or contribute to the heart condition.”

The City pointed to the testimony of Dr. Joseph Deumite, Devall’s treating cardiologist, that he was unaware “of any independent risk factor that a fireman has as to contributing to heart disease. I am not aware of any. And I could be educated on that, but I am not aware of that.”

The Court found this testimony to be insufficient to overcome the presumption. The Court observed that “Dr. Deumite did acknowledge that stress contributes to heart disease. Dr. Deumite conceded that if Devall’s work was very stressful to him, such stress could contribute to or aggravate his heart condition. He further admitted that he could not rule out that stress related to Devall’s job as a firefighter had some contribution to Devall’s heart problems.”

The Court also cited the testimony of an independent medical examiner who testified that, given the potential compounds present in toxic fumes to which firefighters are exposed, firefighters could suffer from hardening of the arteries. The independent medical examiner also testified that Devall’s ongoing exposure to the adverse conditions required by his work would be stressful and that stress constitutes a clear-cut risk for heart disease.

In the end, the Court found that there “simply was no evidence presented that was sufficient to overcome the presumption that Devall’s heart infirmity resulted from his work as a firefighter.”

Devall v. Baton Rouge Fire Department, 2007 WL 3246745 (La.App. 2007).

This article appears in the January 2008 issue