Occupational Heart Disease for Firefighters

The Fight for Fire Fighter’s Workers’ Compensation benefits.

The following is the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals opinion regarding Jim Phillips’ workers’ compensation case for occupational heart disease arising from his employment as a firefighter for the City of Hoover.  Jim Phillips, a veteran firefighter, suffered from a heart attack that left him totally disabled.  I tried this case in Shelby County, Alabama and was able to both clarify and establish the law regarding occupational heart disease for  firefighters.

City of Hoover v. Phillips, 895 So.2d 992 (Ala. Civ. App. 2004)

City of Hoover v. James Ernest Phillips

Rel: May 07, 2004

ALABAMA COURT OF CIVIL APPEALS

OCTOBER TERM, 2003-2004

2021023

Appeal from Shelby Circuit Court

(CV-01-733)


Page 993


PITTMAN, Judge.

James Ernest Phillips (“the employee”), a firefighter formerly employed by the City of Hoover (“the City”), sued the City in the Shelby Circuit Court (fn1) in July 2001 seeking benefits under the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act, § 25-5-1 et seq., Ala. Code 1975 (“the Act”); the employee claimed to have suffered an injury to his cardiovascular system arising out of and in the course of his employment or, in the alternative, claimed to have suffered from cardiovascular disease that was occupational in nature and therefore compensable under the Act. The City answered the complaint, denying its pertinent allegations and asserting that the employee had not given the City notice of his injury. After an ore tenus proceeding, the trial court entered a judgment in favor of the employee, stating findings of fact and conclusions of law and determining both that the employee was permanently and totally disabled as a result of a work-related injury and that the employee suffered from occupational heart disease. The City’s postjudgment motion for a new trial was denied, and the City appeals.

The City raises three issues on appeal: (1) whether the City had proper notice of the employee’s claim; (2) whether causation by the employee’s employment was demonstrated; and (3) whether the employee suffered from an occupational disease. This court will not reverse a judgment based on the factual findings of the trial court in a workers’ compensation case if those findings are supported by “substantial evidence.” Ala. Code 1975, § 25-5-81(e)(2). “Substantial evidence” is “‘evidence of such weight and quality that fair- minded persons in the exercise of im-


Page 994


partial judgment can reasonably infer the existence of the fact sought to be proved.’” Ex parte Trinity Indus., Inc., 680 So.2d 262, 268 (Ala. 1996) (quoting West v. Founders Life Assurance Co. of Florida, 547 So.2d 870, 871 (Ala. 1989)). Pursuant to that principle of review, “‘the trial court’s findings on disputed evidence in a workers’ compensation case are conclusive,’” and this court must not “‘weigh the evidence before the trial court.’” Ex parte Golden Poultry Co., 772 So.2d 1175, 1176 (Ala. 2000) (quoting Ex parte Ellenburg, 627 So.2d 398, 399 (Ala. 1993), and Edwards v. Jesse Stutts, Inc., 655 So.2d 1012, 1014 (Ala. Civ. App. 1995)); see also Ex parte Holton, [Ms. 1012143, June 13, 2003] ___ So.2d ___, ___ (Ala. 2003). Moreover, we must “consider the evidence in a light most favorable to the findings of the trial court.” Ex parte Staggs, 825 So.2d 820, 822 n.1 (Ala. 2001).

The record reveals the following facts. The employee worked for the City for 23 years as a firefighter with a paramedic certification until June 2000. The employee was diagnosed with heart disease in late 1999 after undergoing an arteriogram; after the employee underwent surgery to have a stent placed in a coronary artery, his treating physician, Dr. Larry E. Dye, returned the employee to work with no restrictions, although he was prescribed nitroglycerin. The employee was medically recertified by the City’s fire-department physician, and he resumed his normal work routine thereafter.

At approximately 8:00 a.m. on June 2, 2000, the employee reported to work pursuant to a “twenty-four on, forty-eight off” schedule (i.e., the employee remained at a fire station for a 24-hour work shift, including on-duty sleep periods, that was to be followed by 48 hours off work). The employee performed paperwork and undertook continuing-education lessons during the first hours of his shift, and then he went to sleep.

At approximately 10:00 p.m. that evening, a fire-alarm call was received at the employee’s fire station. The employee testified that when the fire station receives such a call when he is asleep, he must awaken, dress in protective gear, and board a fire engine with his crew within 30 seconds. On this occasion, after arriving at the scene of the fire, the employee reported to a division chief at the bottom of a slight incline, and then began walking uphill to rejoin his company; however, as the employee walked up the hill, he began to experience burning chest pains. The employee completed his climb and informed his crew, as they reboarded the fire engine, that he was experiencing chest pains. Although he was uncertain why he was experiencing chest pains, the employee apparently initially believed that those pains could have been caused by particularly spicy chili that he had consumed in the firehouse that evening because his symptoms did not resemble the pain he had previously experienced in late 1999. Upon returning to the station, the employee submitted to a blood-pressure examination; ingested a nitroglycerin tablet, a dose of aspirin, and an antacid; and returned to bed after his symptoms subsided.

At approximately 2:00 a.m. on the morning of June 3, 2000, the fire station received another emergency call arising from a fall suffered by an elderly resident of an extended-care facility. The employee’s fire company responded to the call and transported the resident for medical treatment. The employee reported similar chest-pain symptoms after awakening and boarding the fire engine on this occasion; upon his return to the fire station, he repeated his medications, which reduced his chest pains considerably, and he filled


Page 995


out a written report of his fire crew’s response to the emergency call before again falling asleep.

The employee completed his work shift at 8:00 a.m. on June 3, 2000, at which time he reportedly was continuing to experience low-grade pain symptoms. After leaving work, the employee went to the home of one of his friends to help construct wooden outdoor steps along an incline. However, while the employee was at his friend’s home, his chest-pain symptoms again set in. When nitroglycerin did not alleviate the employee’s symptoms, an emergency call was placed on the employee’s behalf; the responding personnel connected the employee to a heart monitor that revealed that the employee was actually undergoing a myocardial infarction (i.e., a heart attack). The employee was then transported to a local hospital emergency room for immediate heart-catheterization treatment; although the employee’s occluded coronary artery was opened and his heart was stabilized, he contracted a severe infection caused by staphylococcus bacteria, requiring his hospitalization for over three weeks.

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