9 Investigates

Former Orlando firefighter loses court battle over line-of-duty disability pension

ORLANDO, Fla. — A former Orlando firefighter just lost a court battle over a denied line-of-duty disability pension, even though doctors acknowledge he suffered several work-related injuries leading up to him being declared disabled.

“In my eyes, I didn’t do anything wrong. I tried to stay on shift and fight these injuries, and the city turned its back on me,” Joseph Brown said.

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Brown said he did what a lot of people end up doing: trying to work through pain. It seems that decision may have cost him the chance at a line-of-duty disability pension.

The difference in a disability pension payout compared to a line-of-duty disability pension payout is tens of thousands per year. Brown is only 38 years old.

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“You never want to go out that way,” Brown said. “You want to be able to finish your career.”

Brown’s back made the decision for him. Following several on-the-job injuries, he was deemed disabled because he can’t lift more than 50 pounds.

The pension board’s final ruling lists his reported injuries during his time with the department. The last one, dated November 2017, shows he was struck by a hose that had come loose from its tie-down. That struck Brown’s shin and knocked him backwards.

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“All I remember is my lieutenant starting to get out of the way. I get hit in the legs, I get flipped over, and the last thing I remember is, ‘This is going to hurt,’” Brown recalled.

Despite the pain and difficulty breathing, Brown did not claim Worker’s Compensation or go on light duty following that incident. About a year later, he suffered a neck spasm while trying to intubate a patient.

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That’s the problem: The final ruling from the pension board states “they were ultimately unable to trace the disability to a work related injury due to Brown’s return to full duty” following the November 2017 incident. “Further, the failure to seek treatment itself could be the cause of the disabling condition,” the order states.

“When you’re a fireman, it’s what you do. I gave up so much to get to the city (of Orlando),” Brown said. “It’s one of the top-tier departments in the nation to work for.”

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The ruling points to an independent medical evaluation, in which a doctor found “the applicant’s cervical spine condition preexisted his work injury, although his performance of duty as a member of the fire department likely exacerbated the underlying condition.” The full medical report, however, also states “regarding his low-back condition,” it is the doctor’s opinion that the problems are a “direct result of his performance of duty.”

In addition to losing his dream career, Brown’s family has had to sell their home to make ends meet, and lifting his kids is now too painful.

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“You get into a job that’s high risk, and you expect there’s a possibility I’m not going home, there’s a possibility I’m going to get injured, but they’re supposed to protect you from that, and help you out, and they just didn’t,” Brown said.

A city of Orlando spokesperson told 9 Investigates that by state statute, the pension board is an entity independent from the city. They are responsible for administering the city’s fire pension fund.

We reached out to the attorney representing the pension board, who is now seeking attorney’s fees following Brown’s failed court fight.

Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.