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Senate Bill 542 Seeks to Expand Coverage for Certain Firefighting Personal and Peace Officers

By Nicole Christy

 


The Labor Code contains several rebuttable presumptions of injury in favor of these public employees, as set forth in sections 3212 through 3213.2. The purpose of this codification is to “favor a special class of employees whose service is vital to the public interest and whose strenuous work makes them especially vulnerable." The statutes specify which public employees are entitled to the presumptions, as well as the diseases and illnesses covered. SB 542 proposes to include mental health disorders.


If such language is included, the only rebuttal to the application of the presumption would be evidence of that a contemporaneous non-industrial event was the sole cause of the injury. In short, the presumption would be all but impossible to defeat. However, any evidence of a preexisting psyche condition would be apportionable.


The proposed legislation seeks to include within the current presumption of compensability, those mental health conditions or mental disabilities which result in the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. The push to expand the types of injuries included in the presumption comes after California has suffered consecutive record-breaking fire seasons and during a time when the state has seen an increase in mass shootings. The state firefighting and police organizations, the California Professional Firefighters and the California Associations of Highway Patrolmen are backing the Senate Bill.


Under current law, the servicemen responding to these types of tragedies throughout the state only receive workers compensation benefits if and when their psychiatric injuries cause disability or requires medical treatment, should they be able to prove that the work-related event was a substantial cause of the injury. In the event that the bill passes, the burden of proof will fall to the employer to disprove injury AOE/COE. This shift is a significant change to the current law, which will necessitate an increase in allocation of funds for these types of injuries to governmental agencies. The Bill would retroactively apply to all claims active from January 2017 going forward. Given the fact that California experienced multiple devastating fires during the 2017 to 2018 season, this inflates the potential increase in costs to governmental agencies.


The other consideration for broadening the presumption is the increasing suicide rate for these public safety officers. Because the work as a public safety officer, whether that of the police or fire fighter, inherently involves dealing with scenes that would evoke post-traumatic memories, there is a serious risk of exacerbation of current mental and physical disorders should those officers return to the line of duty after suffering from a traumatic event.


PORAC, Peace Officers Research Association of California, a co-sponsor of the bill, has stated that the intent to pass comes with the hope that it “will provide first responders timely access to needed treatment, raise awareness and destigmatize these conditions for those whose mental health may depend upon seeking treatment.” Not surprisingly, the League of California Cities opposes the bill. While the League has not provided a comment on the bill, their opposition is likely due to valid concerns for the bill’s potential to increase the filing of psyche claims, as well as the exponential increase in costs of benefits administered relative to those claims.


SB 542 is an act to add Section 3212.15 to the Labor Code and is currently being referred to the Committee on Insurance.

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