The widow of a Florida firefighter who died of brain cancer in 2021, has prevailed in obtaining workers comp death benefits from his employer. Eric Siena was an Orange County firefighter who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2020.
After Siena was diagnosed, he sought and was granted benefits under Florida Statutes § 112.1816(2), which provided medical care and a $25,000 payment. When he passed away in 2021, his widow, Christy Siena, sought death benefits under § 112.191(2)(a), § 112.1816(4)(c), and Chapter 440 (which is the workers compensation law).
Orange County granted Christy’s claim for benefits under § 112.191(2)(a) and § 112.1816(4)(c), but denied the workers comp death benefit under Chapter 440. Christy appealed the decision to the Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC), who agreed with the county – concluding that because Eric opted to receive benefits under § 112.1816(2), he was not entitled to benefits under Chapter 440. Christy appealed that decision to the Florida Court of Appeals. In explaining its reason for reversing the JCC decision, the Court of Appeals explained the complex interplay between the state’s cancer laws and worker’s comp laws as follows:
- When the chapter 440 claim came before the Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC), the parties narrowed the issues to whether pursuit of benefits under section 112.1816 is “the sole remedy,” and (conversely) whether receipt of death benefits through paragraph 112.1816(4)(c) automatically entitles a claimant to death benefits under chapter 440.
- After a detailed analysis of the applicable statutes, the JCC ruled that chapter 440 death benefits were barred on grounds that the Sienas had elected their remedy by accepting chapter 112 benefits.
- This issue comes down to our interpretation of section 112.1816(2). Not only clear, unambiguous statutory language, but also its context, is a “primary determinant of meaning.” To understand the context, we look to sections 112.1816 and 112.191(2), which include provisions relating to firefighters, and 440.16(1), which is part of the Workers’ Compensation Law.
- The firefighter provisions read in pertinent part as follows:
- Upon a diagnosis of cancer, a firefighter is entitled to the following benefits, as an alternative to pursuing workers’ compensation benefits under chapter 440…
- Cancer treatment covered within an employer-sponsored health plan or through a group health insurance trust fund. The employer must timely reimburse the firefighter for any out-of-pocket deductible, copayment, or coinsurance costs incurred due to the treatment of cancer.
- A one-time cash payout of $25,000, upon the firefighter’s initial diagnosis of cancer.
- § 112.1816, Fla. Stat.
- The sum of $75,000 must be paid as provided in this section when a firefighter, while engaged in the performance of his or her firefighter duties, is accidentally killed or receives accidental bodily injury which subsequently results in the loss of the firefighter’s life, provided that such killing is not the result of suicide and that such bodily injury is not intentionally self-inflicted.
- Such payments, pursuant to paragraphs (a), (b), and (c), are in addition to any workers’ compensation or retirement plan benefits and are exempt from the claims and demands of creditors of such firefighter.
- § 112.191(2), Fla. Stat.
- The applicable Workers’ Compensation Law provision reads as follows:
- If death results from the accident within 1 year thereafter or follows continuous disability and results from the accident within 5 years thereafter, the employer shall pay:
- [Funeral expenses].
- Compensation, in addition to the above, in the following percentages of the average weekly wages to the following persons entitled thereto on account of dependency upon the deceased, and in the following order of preference, subject to the limitation provided in subparagraph 2., but such compensation shall be subject to the limits provided in s. 440.12(2) [capping disability compensation at statewide average weekly wage], shall not exceed $150,000, and may be less than, but shall not exceed, for all dependents or persons entitled to compensation, 662/3 or 66.67 percent of the average wage… To the spouse . . . .
- [Orange County] and JCC read subsection 112.1816(2)’s phrase “as an alternative to pursuing workers’ compensation benefits under chapter 440” as barring Siena’s claim to the workers’ compensation death benefit in section 440.16.
- Siena, on the other hand, argues that the phrases “all of the benefits arising out of such death are available to the deceased firefighter’s beneficiary” from paragraph 112.1816(4)(c) and “in addition to any workers’ compensation” from paragraph 112.191(2)(e) must mean that she can still seek the workers’ compensation death benefit.
- We find that the context of all three of those statutory provisions leads to the conclusion that the phrase in section 112.1816(2) “as an alternative to pursuing workers’ compensation benefits under chapter 440” applies only to benefits relating to those set forth in that subsection.
- In other words, the phrase applies only to benefits available “[u]pon diagnosis of cancer” and not to death benefits available elsewhere in chapter 112, nor to chapter 440 death benefits.
- We reach this conclusion because subsection (2) is the only provision that explicitly permits firefighters—not their dependents or beneficiaries—to claim medical treatment (for the firefighter) and a one-time cash payout (to the firefighter) upon diagnosis.
- Moreover, because the right to death benefits is in paragraph 112.191(2)(a), it is modified by its ensuing paragraph 112.191(2)(e), which plainly states that “[s]uch payments” are “in addition to,” that is, not in lieu of or barring claims for, “any workers’ compensation.”
- In any event, upon the injured worker’s death subsection 112.1816(2) no longer applies.
- At that point, the applicable laws are paragraph 112.1816(4)(c), which reads “all of the benefits arising out of such death are available to the deceased firefighter’s beneficiary,” and subsection 112.191(2), with its required payment of death benefits of $75,000 “in addition to any workers’ compensation.”
- Both quoted phrases clearly contemplate receipt of chapter 440 death benefits.
- Accordingly, we reject the conclusion that receipt of benefits under section 112.1816(2) precluded the other benefits at issue here.