Houston firefighter wins workers compensation lawsuit
Kevin Leago is due about $60,000 in back pay for workdays he missed because of his illness and can seek treatment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center
By Zach Despart
HOUSTON — A Houston Fire Department senior captain with neuroendocrine cancer won his appeal for workers compensation benefits, more than a year after the city denied his claim, arguing his illness was unrelated to his job.
The benefits allow Kevin Leago, 39, to seek treatment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. His city health insurance plan did not cover care at the world-renowned facility. Leago also is due about $60,000 in back pay for workdays he missed because of his illness.
“If something happens, my family will be taken care of now,” Leago said. “It’s a ton of weight taken off of me.”
The ruling could help firefighters with cancer across Texas, who have struggled to win approval for workers compensation claims, despite medical research linking certain cancers to the fire service. Many cities have interpreted a 2005 state law requiring the government to presume a firefighters’ cancer was caused by exposure to chemicals on the job as only applying to three types: testicular, prostate and non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Between 2012 and last year, 91 percent of workers comp cancer claims in Texas were rejected.
The ruling in favor of Leago rejects this narrow interpretation of the presumptive cancer statute, which the state senator who wrote the law said was meant to cover any cancer associated with firefighting.
“This is very significant for firefighters,” said Mike Sprain, Leago’s attorney. “The reason why it’s good precedent is it shows that the firefighters are meeting the presumption.”
An administrative law judge with the Texas Division of Workers’ Compensation initially ruled in favor of the city in Leago’s case. During a hearing in April, a doctor hired by the city argued Leago’s cancer was related to his family history. On appeal, a panel of three judges concluded the doctor had failed to establish a connection between Leago’s cancer and his family history, and was unable to state the cause of his illness.
The initial ruling against Leago, the panel wrote in a decision filed on Tuesday, was “so against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence as to be clearly wrong or manifestly unjust.”
Sprain said in his experience, appeals in workers comp cases have a success rate of less than 10 percent.
Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton, praised Leago for continuing to fight after his claim was denied. He said the city of Houston has denied 100 percent of workers comp claims from firefighters since 2016, which the union blamed on Mayor Sylvester Turner.
“The truth is, the mayor’s political and legal war on Houston firefighter families extends from City Hall all the way to the cancer wards,” Lancton said. “But for today, we are thrilled for Kevin and his family. Their win is a win for all Houston firefighters.”
Leago, who lives in Winnie and balances the schedules of his wife and young daughter to receive treatment in Houston, said he is cautiously optimistic about his victory. The city still could sue Leago in state district court, seeking to deny his benefits, much as Baytown took one of its own cancer-stricken firefighters to court.
Turner said the city has made no decision on whether to take Leago to court.
"With regard to Marty Lancton's rhetoric, I believe Houstonians and other people in this country are exhausted from how people talk negatively about each other, especially when what is being said is untrue,'' the mayor said in a statement.
The Texas Legislature in June passed a bill listing 11 illnesses covered by the presumptive cancer statute: stomach, testicular, colon, rectum, prostate, skin, brain, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, renal cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma. The original 2005 statute did not mention any specific types of cancer.
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