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Firefighter Denied Workers' Compensation After Heart Attack

Posted on in Workers' Compensation
Firefighter Denied Workers' Compensation After Heart AttackA recent majority decision by an Illinois appellate court upheld a ruling by the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission to deny compensation to a firefighter who suffered a heart attack on the job. The case of Johnston v. The Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission shows how preexisting health conditions can affect a workers' compensation claim.


The claimant, a 15-year veteran of a suburban Chicago fire department, suffered a heart attack the morning of Feb. 5, 2014, after reportedly going outside to remove snow around the station. The claimant said he does not remember anything that happened that morning after he arrived at work. Physicians determined that the man had preexisting coronary artery disease that likely caused the cardiac event. While it is possible that the man developed the condition because he was exposed to toxic fumes as a firefighter, the physicians noted other health factors that may have caused the condition, including:

  • Obesity;
  • Chronic smoking;
  • Family history of coronary artery disease; and
  • Possible mild diabetes.


An arbitrator determined that the fire department did not owe workers' compensation benefits to the claimant because his preexisting condition made him “a heart attack waiting to happen” and his work was not the cause of the heart attack. The Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission and the Circuit Court of Kane County agreed with the decision. The claimant challenged the rulings with the Appellate Court of Illinois, arguing:

  • The commission failed to prove that his coronary artery disease was not a result of his work; and
  • His heart attack was a work-related accident caused by removing snow.


The court ruled 4-1 in favor of the workers' compensation commission. According to the majority decision:

  • Illinois law states that the hazards of being a firefighter are presumed to be connected whenever a firefighter develops a condition such as coronary artery disease. However, the commission presented enough evidence to rebut that presumption by showing that the condition was likely caused by health issues not related to work. It was the claimant's responsibility to prove that his work caused his condition.
  • Other employees found the claimant unconscious outside after he suffered the heart attack, but no one saw or heard evidence that he was removing snow. Therefore, it cannot be proven that he was working when the heart attack happened.

The dissenting judge disagreed with the majority's assertion that the claimant needed to prove that his work caused his condition. He said the burden was on the employer to prove that working as a firefighter did not cause the claimant's condition.

Workers' Compensation

If you have been injured on the job, your employer may try to prevent you from receiving workers' compensation. A McHenry County workers' compensation attorney at Botto Gilbert Lancaster, PC can protect your rights as an employee.



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