ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — 9 Investigates continues to dig into denials of benefits for local firefighters, despite laws meant to provide relief to those first responders or their families after a diagnosis of cancer.
Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray first exposed a series of cancer cases families believe are connected to the same chemical fire in Orange County back in 2006, and learned some of the claims for financial relief have been denied.
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Now, one of those cases could set a legal precedent for the entire state after it goes before a judge this week.
Eric Siena’s widow received a $75,000 death benefit under the Florida Firefighter Cancer Benefits Statute 112 after we started asking about his case and just days before a story was set to air looking into this issue.
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Now, the question before an administrative judge is whether his widow is entitled to an additional $150,000 worker’s compensation death benefit. A ruling could drastically impact the way these cases are handled in the future.
When we first met Orange County Firefighter Eric Siena in 2015, he had just climbed what’s now known as the Wheel at Icon Park.
“It was beautiful at the top. You can see Disney, downtown Orlando,” Siena said.
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He handled that training the way his wife says he handled all aspects of the fire service throughout his career.
“He was very passionate about what he did,” Christy Siena said.
It was his passion for working the worst of the worst scenes, including a horrific hazmat fire in 2006, that she believes led to him being diagnosed with stage 4 Glioblastoma, a devastating brain tumor, in January 2020. By May 2021, he was gone.
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Now, it’ll be up to a judge to decide whether his widow is entitled to worker’s compensation benefits following his death.
“There’s not another decision in the state that has dealt with this issue so far,” attorney Geoff Bichler said.
Orange County paid a $25,000 diagnosis benefit to Siena before his death under the firefighter cancer law, and Christy received the $75,000 death benefit under that statute in October 2021. The $150,000 worker’s compensation death benefit is a separate pot of money.
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“The county is taking the position that because he took the payment of $25,000, he cannot seek additional benefits under the Worker’s Compensation Act,” Bichler said.
The trial brief prepared by Siena’s attorney argues that the benefits coexist, are consistent and cumulative. The judge’s ruling could set a precedent for how these benefits are paid in the future.
“Most employers are operating from the assumption that if they pay this benefit, they’re off the hook for worker’s compensation, and we do not agree with that,” Bichler said.
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An administrative compensation claims judge will look at this case on Wednesday, Feb. 16, and likely issue a written order in the weeks ahead.
9 Investigates reached out to Orange County to request their trial brief before it is presented to the judge, but a spokesperson said it was exempt from disclosure until the litigation is over and it’s also subject to attorney-client privilege.
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