Look, I never pass up an opportunity to become outraged at something officials at the City of Salem have done. That's why I called this blog Salem Political Snark rather than Salem Political Praise.
So when I saw a story on KGW News a few days ago about how the widow of a Salem firefighter, Maurice "Mo" Stadeli, was being denied workers compensation benefits after her husband died of tonsil cancer because the city was asking the state Supreme Court to reverse a Court of Appeals ruling that approved the benefits, my outrage meter was prepared to rise into the Red Hot zone.
The last story was about how the Salem City Manager, Keith Stahley, announced at last Monday's City Council meeting that the Supreme Court appeal was being dropped. A Salem Reporter story about this quoted Mayor Chris Hoy as saying:
“I know we struggled with this decision before., and after further information and further reflection, I think we all realized that we made a mistake. And I don’t think it’s a sign of weakness to change your decision or admit a mistake. I think it’s just a sign of people understanding what’s right and what’s not,” he said. “ I’m happy that we are able to move forward and I am very sorry for the harm we’ve caused to Mo’s spouse.”
Well, I agree that it was a mistake, but it wasn't an outrageous mistake as I thought at first. For city officials had good reason to consider that while Stadeli's death was a tragedy, the cause of his tonsil cancer wasn't related to his job as a Salem firefighter for 28 years.
That was the conclusion of an administrative law judge, according to the Salem Reporter. But then the Workers Compensation Board and Court of Appeals ruled against the city.
In December 2019, the city denied the Stadeli family’s claim for worker’s compensation benefits. City attorneys later argued in court filings that it consulted medical experts who determined that a pre-existing medical condition most likely caused his illness.
An administrative law judge supported that finding in an April 2021 ruling. But the state Workers Compensation Board reversed the decision eight months later, finding that the experts did not rule out firefighting as a cause, according to court documents.
Under state law, cancers of the throat and mouth are presumed to be a work-related illness if contracted by firefighters who have worked more than five years.
...The city in January 2022 sought a review of the decision by the state Court of Appeals. The court ruled on Sept. 13 that the city did not prove Stadeli’s illness was not work-related under state law, court records showed.
You can read the Court of Appeals decision here. It isn't the easiest reading, but my fairly quick perusal turned up some facts that ratcheted down my outrage at city officials.
Stadeli chewed tobacco. He had HPV. Here's an excerpt from the ruling.
We state the facts supported by substantial evidence consistently with the board's order. ORS 656.298(7); ORS 183.482(8)(c). Claimant worked as a firefighter for over 25 years. He also chewed tobacco for “many years.” In 2018, a biopsy of claimant's right tonsil revealed an invasive squamous cell carcinoma that was positive for the human papillomavirus 16 (HPV-16).
All four physician experts who offered evidence in this case agreed that HPV is a cause of tonsillar cancer generally, and all three who evaluated claimant's situation agreed that HPV was a probable cause of claimant's cancer specifically. The three experts on whom the board relied in reaching its decision—Drs. Pierce, Orwoll, and Beer—also agreed that HPV was the most significant probable cause of claimant's cancer.
Those experts were also asked about the probability that either claimant's habit of chewing tobacco or his work as a firefighter were causally connected to his cancer. As to both, no expert was able to cite studies in medical literature supporting a connection between either tobacco or firefighting and tonsillar cancer, but neither were they able to definitively state that either had no connection to claimant's cancer.
My impression of the Court of Appeals ruling not surprisingly fits with how City Manager Stahley described it in the Salem Reporter story. There wasn't conclusive evidence that Stadeli's cancer was caused by his work as a firefighter, but there also wasn't conclusive evidence that it wasn't.
Stahley became city manager after the city pressed for the Court of Appeals to review the matter and before that court made a decision.
He told Salem Reporter on Monday that the appellate judges who ruled earlier on the matter misinterpreted Oregon’s worker compensation law – requiring medical experts to have an impossible level of certainty about the cause of some diseases.
“If the court of appeals decision stands, the city of Salem and other Oregon employers will pay higher workers compensation insurance premiums and pay more in claims for some illnesses or injuries that are unrelated to working conditions,” he said at the time.
So city officials weren't acting like mean-spirited grinches determined to take away a widow's workers compensation benefits following the death of her firefighter husband. They sought medical advice about whether his cancer was related to his job.
The general consensus, from what I could tell in the Court of Appeals ruling, was that HPV and chewing tobacco were likely causes of the cancer, with HPV being most important.
However, since mouth and throat cancers are viewed in state law as being occupational hazards for firefighters, the Workers Compensation Board and Court of Appeals determined that the widow was entitled to her husband's workers compensation benefits.
That seems fair. It also seemed reasonable that the City of Salem filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, given the specific facts in Stadeli's case.