NJ Supreme Court Upholds The Rights of Firefighters Who Suffer Lung Disease
A unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court decided that firefighters, whether paid or volunteer, may receive Workers’ Compensation benefits for developing respiratory illness and lung disease due to exposure to asbestos, fumes, and other toxic substances encountered on the job. Decided February 11, 2002, the case of Culbert v. City of Jersey City, 814 A. 2d 1094 - NJ: Supreme Court 2003 and its companion Lindquist v. City of Jersey City Fire Dept., 814 A. 2d 1069 - NJ: Supreme Court 2003, reversed the Judgment of the Appellate Division, which threw out the firefighter’s claims.
Firefighters are among the many professions at high risk for exposure to asbestos fibers. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral widely used in the construction industry for many years due to its fire-resistant properties. However, it has since been proven to be a carcinogen and can cause serious health problems, including lung cancer and mesothelioma.
When buildings burn, asbestos fibers can become airborne and inhaled by firefighters. In addition, firefighters may also come into contact with asbestos while performing demolition work on buildings that contain the mineral. This puts them at a higher risk for developing asbestos-related illnesses than the general population.
The dangers of asbestos exposure for firefighters were first recognized in the 1980s, and since then, steps have been taken to protect them from this risk. For example, firefighters are now required to wear respiratory protective equipment when working in buildings that may contain asbestos. This can help to reduce the amount of asbestos fibers that they inhale.
However, despite these precautions, firefighters are still at risk for asbestos exposure. This is because not all buildings have been properly identified as containing asbestos, and firefighters may not always be aware of the presence of the mineral when responding to a fire. This is particularly true for older buildings, which are more likely to contain asbestos.
In addition to the physical risks associated with asbestos exposure, firefighters may also face financial and emotional stress due to an asbestos-related illness. Treatment for asbestos-related illnesses can be costly, and the illness may prevent a firefighter from working.
Firefighters are at high risk for exposure to asbestos fibers due to their work in burning buildings and demolition work. Although steps have been taken to protect them, the risk remains, and firefighters must be aware of the dangers of asbestos exposure and take precautions to protect themselves.
Justice Coleman, a former Judge of the Workers’ Compensation Court, authored the Opinion which extends the Firefighter Presumption of Compensability portion of the Act to paid firefighters in that any condition or impairment of any member of a volunteer or paid fire department caused by a disease of the respiratory system shall be presumed to be an occupational disease. The Court also held that the stringent standard of occupational heart disease cases does not apply to a lung disease case.
As to causal relationship, the Court said, "It is sufficient in New Jersey to prove that the exposure to a risk or danger in the workplace was in fact a contributing cause of the injury. That means proof that the work-related activities probably caused or contributed to the employee's disabling injury as a matter of medical fact. Coleman v. Cycle Transformer Corp., 105 N.J. 285, 290-91, 520 A.2d 1341 (1986). Direct causation is not required; proof establishing that the exposure caused the activation, acceleration or exacerbation of disabling symptoms is sufficient."
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