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Firefighter who can't prove source of fungal disease denied comp

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It's not presumed that a Washington state man developed a fungal infection because of his work as a firefighter, the Washington Supreme Court has ruled.

Edward O. Gorre worked as a firefighter for the city of Tacoma, Washington, since 1997, court records show. After a decade on the job, he began experiencing fatigue, night sweats, chills and joint aches. He eventually learned that he suffers from valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, which is caused by a fungus that favors warm, dry climates, records show.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the fungus is primarily found in the southwestern United States, and parts of Mexico and South America.

Also according to the CDC, people can get valley fever by breathing in the microscopic fungal spores from the air. While most people don't get sick, those who do usually get better on their own within weeks to months, but some people require antifungal medication, the CDC says.

Mr. Gorre filed for workers compensation benefits with the city of Tacoma and the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, records show. When his claim was rejected in 2008, he appealed to the Washington State Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals.

Mr. Gorre argued that firefighters in the state are granted a rebuttable presumption if they develop respiratory diseases or infectious diseases, according to records. He alleged he was exposed to the fungus from responding to emergency calls on Interstate 5, where he inhaled spores transported by vehicles traveling north from California.

An industrial appeals judge decided that valley fever was an infectious disease Mr. Gorre likely acquired during a personal trip to Nevada, records show. Expert testimony supported these findings, which were then adopted by the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals.

According to records, the infectious disease presumption “shall be extended to any firefighter who has contracted … human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, all strains of hepatitis, meningococcal meningitis, or mycobacterium tuberculosis.”

While firefighters who have a disease that's not listed may still receive workers comp benefits, they retain the “burden of proving an employment-related exposure” occurred, records show.

The Pierce County Superior Court affirmed the board's decision, leading Mr. Gorre to appeal again.

In April 2014, a Washington state appellate court reversed and remanded for a new evidentiary hearing, holding that the list of presumed infectious diseases is not exclusive and that it could include valley fever, according to records.

The city appealed to the Washington Supreme Court. En banc, the court on Thursday reinstated the superior court's judgment in a 7-2 opinion.

“Because medical experts in Gorre's case testified that valley fever is an infectious disease, not a respiratory one, and because it is not one of the infectious diseases enumerated in (the statute), the presumption does not apply,” according to the state Supreme Court's ruling.

The dissenting opinion states that the legislature grants rebuttable presumptions to those with jobs that put “them at higher risk for disease and infection. But in applying that statute, the majority finds ambiguity where there is none and arrives at an interpretation of the statute that contravenes the statute's plain language and legislative intent.”