Firefighter who died of cancer was killed in the line of duty, court says

Toronto firefighter’s estate entitled to accidental death benefits since disease was linked to job

The City of Toronto must pay “killed in the line of duty” benefits and accidental death benefits to the estate of a deceased firefighter after the Ontario Superior Court of Justice overturned an arbitrator’s decision that he was not entitled to the benefits.

Bruce Ritchie was a district fire chief with Toronto Fire Services with more than 25 years’ service when he died of renal cell cancer in 1998 at the age of 53. In 2004, the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB) found Ritchie’s work as a firefighter, which frequently involved being exposed to hazardous substances while using unsafe equipment, significantly contributed to his cancer.

However, the city’s insurance policy only allowed for a death benefit to be paid in the event of “external, violent and accidental means (independently of any physical illness or infirmity).” An arbitrator ruled Ritchie died of an illness, which could be considered natural causes and not an unexpected or accidental event. As a result, it was decided Ritchie’s estate was not entitled to accidental death benefits or “killed in the line of duty benefits” provided for in the collective bargaining agreement between the firefighters’ union and the city of Toronto.

The court found the arbitrator did not adequately consider the WSIB’s determination that Ritchie’s cancer was “at least partly caused as a result of a single or multiple exposures to toxic substances” over the course of his career as a firefighter. It also found Ritchie would not have expected to die from renal cancer as a result of his job, particularly since the true dangers of the materials he was exposed to were not known during much of his career. Ritchie’s cancer could not simply be considered a normal disease which he contracted in the “ordinary course of events” but rather the result of exposure to toxic substances during the course of doing his job.

“Had Ritchie been exposed to toxic substances as a result of a single explosion of a container of toxic substances and contracted renal cancer and died, then this would clearly not be a death from natural causes,” the court said. “The same logic would apply to multiple exposures to toxic substances on several occasions over an extended period of time.”

The court ruled Ritchie’s cancer was caused by unexpected events causing exposure to toxins while performing his duties as a firefighter. He did not intentionally or expect to expose himself to the toxins, so the court considered the circumstances of his death accidental. Because his job duties directly contributed to the exposure, the court also considered Ritchie to have been killed in the line of duty.

The court awarded Ritchie’s estate accidental death and “killed in the line of duty” benefits provided for in the collective agreement.

“As long as the death is caused or substantially contributed to by an event or events which occurred while working, and death results, I find that the person would be ‘killed in the line of duty’ and that this was the case for Mr. Ritchie,” the court said.

For more information see:

Toronto Professional Firefighters’ Assn. v. Toronto (City)

, 2007 CarswellOnt 1900 (Ont. S.C.J.).

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