City of Toledo takes cancer-stricken firefighters to court over worker’s comp claims

Published: Jul. 7, 2021 at 7:40 PM EDT
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TOLEDO, Ohio (WTVG) - Some Toledo firefighters battling cancer are now battling something else -- the City of Toledo itself.

The city is taking the firefighters to court over worker’s compensation claims that have already been accepted. It’s a fight that could affect their long term health, but in the short term, it’s causing lots of stress

It all starts with a state law saying firefighters who contract cancer are presumed to have contracted it through their job and can get worker’s compensation. The assumption was that would be the end of the story, but the City of Toledo is digging in.

“When this happened, it was like being strapped into a roller coaster because basically, I was just along for the ride,” said Toledo firefighter Miguel Castillo.

“I’m going to die, I mean that’s what you think of,” said Toledo Fire Department Lieutenant Jennifer Hill.

Hill remembers the triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis after a typical mammogram last year. She filed a worker’s compensation claim and was approved. Same thing for Castillo.

That was the easy part because of state law named after Cleveland area firefighter Michael Palumbo, which awards worker’s comp benefits to firefighters with cancer, presuming cancer came from their work.

“You spend your whole life doing this. You’re living with people, you’re working 24 hours a day. It’s your family, it’s your second family and to be treated like that, it’s a slap in the face,” said Hill.

That “slap in the face” is coming from the city of Toledo that not only appealed the worker’s comp award twice but actually took Hill and Castillo to Lucas County Common Pleas Court to fight the claim further.

“The city representative really didn’t have much to say except they were going to continue to fight this, and not once was there any concern on my health or well-being from the city,” said Castillo.

Castillo’s case has been dropped but the city can refile. Two others have current cases and trial dates, and Hill makes it three. She received her court notice the same day she went for radiation.

James Martin, a 35-year-old firefighter, had a court date as he fights hairy cell leukemia. That case was dropped on the exact same day the 13abc I-Team first asked the city administration questions about this issue.

“The city claims that they love us. They love what we do. They support us and everything, and then they’re going to take you to trial for getting cancer,” said Martin.

For Martin and the others, no bills are paid during the worker’s comp appeals, but they are paid during this Common Pleas Court process. If the city prevails, worker’s comp protections would go away and the firefighters would use private insurance and pay out-of-pocket what insurance won’t cover.

“It’s a betrayal as far as we’re concerned,” said Local 92 union Vice President Matt Tabb.

Tabb believes the state law is clear about this worker’s comp coverage and cancer and says this is something people who have served our community doesn’t need.

“Not only do they have to fight for their lives but they also have to fight their employer because their employer has made it very clear that they’re going to take this all the way,” said Tabb.

How does the city defend its position? They won’t, at least to the I-Team. When asked why the city is pursuing this legal action, we were told by a city spokesman, “No comment, pending litigation.”

“What if my cancer comes back. That’s what I think about, I lay awake at night thinking what if my cancer comes back and can I afford it” said Hall.

Worker’s comp would cover these firefighters for 10 years after diagnosis, and losing in court would lose those 10 years, forcing them to go back to private insurance, if they could get it and afford it.

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