Heart-Lung Presumption Does Not Require Proof That Disease Caused Condition

Frank Di Luzio began working as a firefighter/paramedic for the City of Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1979. He remained with the Fire Department until 2000. During his 21-year career with the Department, Di Luzio served in a variety of roles, including shift commander, captain of emergency services, division chief, deputy fire chief, and fire chief. Di Luzio actively fought or attended fires approximately two times per week.

Following his career as a firefighter, Di Luzio briefly served as the Santa Fe City Manager. After leaving employment with the City, Di Luzio worked in other occupations before becoming employed with the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, where he was working in 2012 when he was diagnosed with mantle cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Di Luzio subsequently resigned from employment

Di Luzio filed a workers’ compensation claim for benefits in June 2012. When the City opposed the claim, the dispute ended up before the New Mexico Court of Appeals.

The City’s primary argument concerned New Mexico’s “heart-lung” statute, known as the Firefighter Occupational Disease Statute. The Statute exempts firefighters in certain situations from the burden of establishing a causal connection between their disease and their duties as firefighters: “If a firefighter is diagnosed with one or more of the following diseases after the period of employment indicated, the disease is presumed to be proximately caused by employment as a firefighter. In the case of a firefighter developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the disease is presumed to be proximately caused by the firefighter’s occupation after 15 years of service.”

The City argued that, notwithstanding the Statute, other portions of New Mexico’s workers’ compensation law still required a firefighter to prove that his disease was caused by his years of firefighting. Since Di Luzio failed to produce any proof of causation, the City contended, he should be barred from receiving disability benefits.

The Court found that “the City’s argument misses the mark.” The Court acknowledged that the workers’ compensation laws generally put a burden on employees to prove that their disease was proximately caused by the hazards of their employment, and to do so “as a medical probability by medical expert testimony.”

However, the Court concluded, “when the Legislature enacted the Statute and stated that certain diseases suffered by firefighters would be presumed to be proximately caused by employment as a firefighter, it made clear that in some circumstances a firefighter would be exempted from the requirement of establishing the causal connection between certain diseases and the hazards of firefighting, although that presumption is rebuttable. The Statute essentially reverses the usual burden of proof under the Occupational Disease Act for a narrow class of employees for public policy reasons.

“These public policy reasons center around the legislative recognition of the difficulty a firefighter would have, given the various hazards and toxins firefighters are exposed to, of establishing the causal connection between firefighting and his or her disease. In the course of fighting fires, firefighters may be exposed to harmful substances. At the fire scene, firefighters are potentially exposed to various mixtures of particulates, gases, mists, fumes of an organic and/or inorganic nature, and the resultant pyrolysis products. A firefighter attempting to causally connect the number and degree of exposures to these various toxins over the course of his or her career to a specific disease would therefore be presented with a formidable barrier to recovery.

“By enacting the firefighter occupational disease statute, the Legislature adopted a statutory presumption that the development of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma by a firefighter is linked to his or her service in that role under certain circumstances. The City’s reliance on general workers’ compensation law for its argument that Di Luzio failed to show that his disease was particular to firefighting fails to account for this statutory presumption.”

Di Luzio v. City of Santa Fe, 2015 WL 178396 (N.M. App. 2015).