A widow can continue to pursue death benefits under Louisiana’s Heart and Lung Act after her husband, a firefighter, died from COVID-19.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for the State of Louisiana found that a trial court’s prior decision was erroneous because it concluded that COVID-19-initiated acute hypoxic respiratory failure wasn’t covered by the state’s Heart and Lung Act.
Wife files claim under Heart and Lung Act
Eric Bacon was a firefighter for the Jefferson Parish Fire Department. He developed a lung condition and died on Dec. 29, 2020.
Eric’s wife, Stacie Bacon, filed a workers’ compensation claim for death benefits, asserting that Eric’s death was covered under the state’s Heart and Lung Act.
‘No argument can be made suggesting he was at higher risk’
Jefferson Parish Fire Department contested the claim, arguing that Eric died from COVID-19, which isn’t compensable under the Heart and Lung Act or the general occupational disease statute.
The fire department claimed that no legitimate argument could be made to suggest that Eric was at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 compared to any other employee, or any other person, on the planet.
Further, the fire department argued that the presumption in the Heart and Lung Act only applies if the disease or illness manifests after the first five years of employment. Because “long-term exposure is at the core of the statute, and contracting one of the most highly contagious and transmissible viruses the world has ever seen clearly falls outside of the intended purpose” of the Act.
For these reasons, the fire department requested the trial judge grant summary judgment in its favor.
Widow: No medical evidence he didn’t contract illness at work
Stacie argued that her husband’s death certificate listed four causes of death:
- COVID-19-initiated acute hypoxic respiratory failure
- septic shock, and
- acute pulmonary embolism.
She claimed that three of the four causes of death are related to lung conditions and that because Eric was a fireman for more than five years his death was presumably caused by his employment.
Stacie also claimed that the fire department presented no medical evidence regarding causation or that Eric didn’t contract his illness from his employment.
Death certificate not enough proof COVID-19 isn’t covered
The trial court granted summary judgment in part to the fire department, finding that COVID-19 isn’t covered by the Heart and Lung Act. However, the court found that Stacie could still pursue a COVID-19 death benefit claim under the general occupational disease statute.
Stacie filed an appeal and the appeals court reversed the trial court decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.
The appeals court found that the trial court was mistaken in finding that COVID-19-initiated acute hypoxic respiratory failure wasn’t covered by the Heart and Lung Act.
The appeals court reasoned that since the only medical evidence submitted was the death certificate there wasn’t enough proof that “‘COVID-19-initiated acute hypoxic respiratory failure,’ an infirmity involving the lungs, is not covered under the Act.”
That meant there were genuine issues of material fact regarding whether that condition was covered under state law.