Workers' compensation claim denied for NY assistant fire chief who died from on-duty injury
Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company Assistant Chief James Brooks Jr. suffered a torn aorta responding to a fire and accumulated nearly $1 million in medical bills
The Post-Star, Glens Falls, N.Y.
WHITEHALL, N.Y. — Some members of the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company are raising concerns after a nearly $1 million workers' compensation claim filed by one of their own after suffering a torn aorta while on duty was denied, despite a state law requiring Washington County to cover the expenses.
James Brooks Jr. died in September after tearing the artery while responding to a structure fire in Dresden four months earlier. He was taken to Rutland Regional Medical Center and later flown to University of Vermont Medical Center, where he suffered a series of debilitating strokes during a surgery to repair the damaged valve.
Brooks, who was 45 when he died, was confined to a wheelchair without the use of his right arm, and he was attended to by his older sister, who ensured he was cleaned and fed following the incident, said Brian Brooks, his uncle and president of the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company.
"He was always a provider," Brian Brooks said of his nephew. "He just did a lot for the community, serving with different emergency squads."
During his various hospital stays, James racked up nearly $1 million in medical expenses, which Brooks said should be covered by the county under the state's Volunteer Firefighters Benefit Law, which requires municipalities to cover medical expenses and provide compensation to any volunteer firefighter injured or killed while on duty.
But James' claim was been denied by Benetech Adjustments, the county's workers' compensation administrator, which cited a preexisting condition for the torn heart valve.
"They should be paying his medical bills," Brooks said.
Brooks said his nephew had no prior medical history indicating there was any issue with his arteries, adding that he passed a department physical a year prior. He was due for a physical last March, but the procedure was delayed because of the pandemic.
James, who was a member of the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company for 20 years and served as an assistant chief, likely suffered the injury while reaching for a microphone, Brooks said.
He said the county is trying to skirt paying the claim because of the financial impact.
But the refusal to pay is an insult to all volunteer firefighters in the county who put their lives in danger in order to serve their communities, Brooks said.
"This should never have even been an issue," he said. "Here's a guy working for no pay, shows up on his own time, does all the training. I don't understand the hatred for volunteer firemen."
James' family has since hired an attorney in order to appeal the decision to a state workers' compensation board.
Roger Wickes, the county's attorney, declined to comment on the case due to the ongoing appeal, but said the process is being handled the same way that any other workers' compensation case would.
"We're not going to comment on anybody's medical records or anything like that, but what I can tell you is that there's a process," he said. "The same process we follow when you slip in the parking lot ... and get hurt and make a workers' comp claim. When the process is over, a decision will be made by the workers' comp board as to whether or not the county is liable."
Benetech did not return a request seeking comment.
But Brooks said if the county isn't required to pay his nephew's claim, it will set a dangerous precedent for all volunteer firefighters in the county who are injured while on duty.
He sent a letter to the county's Board of Supervisors in December urging the county to pay the claim. Members of the department have released a short video on social media seeking to raise awareness about the ongoing situation.
"There can be no good end to Washington County maintaining its position on this case," the letter reads. "The only result will be the loss of volunteer firefighters, as there will be another reason for people not to volunteer."
Brooks said the fact that James was his nephew has little to do with his position, adding he would fight just as hard for any of his members.
He said that he's heard from several of his members who have expressed concerns about continuing their service with the department over James' case.
"It's coming down to an us or them situation with our volunteer firemen," Brooks said. "They're going to do self-preservation and think about their families and think about, 'Well, the next time I run into a house fire, I might not get out, so why should I continue to do it?'"
(c)2021 The Post Star (Glens Falls, N.Y.)