Retired Austin firefighter with cancer sues city after being denied workers’ comp

Crockett Foster (KXAN Photo)
Crockett Foster (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A retired Austin firefighter who’s battled cancer is now battling the city in court. Crockett Foster was a firefighter for 17 years before he was diagnosed in 2002.

“It was stomach cancer. And it had spread throughout my abdomen,” Foster said. “They ended up removing my stomach and my spleen and part of my pancreas, part of my esophagus, part of my intestines and 19 lymph nodes.”

The city says Foster missed the state deadline to file a workers’ compensation claim within one year of his diagnosis.

“At the time, when the union tried to file for me as workers’ comp they were told that cancer was not covered under that and we couldn’t file,” Foster explained.

It wasn’t until years later, in 2015, that studies determined firefighters have a much higher risk of developing cancer — 68 percent, compared to 22 percent for the rest of the population. So that same year, at the advice of the union, Foster filed.

“I lost all my sick leave. I used about 3,800 hours of sick leave over my two surgeries. I wanted them to cover my costs and they didn’t,” Foster told KXAN.

Foster’s attorney Brad McClellan pointed to a state law, passed in 2005, that says a firefighter suffering from certain types of cancer is presumed to have developed cancer during the course of employment. Acknowledging that connection is one thing. But paying those firefighters, McClellan and Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks have learned, is another.

“They’re banking on a technicality rather than doing the right thing,” Nicks said of the city, regarding Foster not filing for workers’ comp within the first year he was diagnosed with cancer.

“It’s gotten to the point where it’s just absurd. There’s strong evidence, scientific evidence of causation between cancer and the job of firefighting. It’s reflected in our presumptive state laws,” Nicks told KXAN.

But in the 12 years since the law was adopted, Nicks says he has yet to see it in practice.

“The city has a blanket policy to deny every workers’ comp claim when it comes to cancer for firefighters, regardless of the circumstances,” Nicks said, explaining that’s what’s been said in meetings he’s attended.

KXAN brought those concerns to city officials, who responded saying the city has no blanket policy when it comes to any workers’ comp claims and that a third party administrator evaluates each claim individually and follows the processes mandated by state law.

As for the lawsuit, a city spokesperson said in a statement, “The city followed the workers compensation process outlined under state law and we are prepared to defend the denial of coverage decision issued by the Texas Department of Insurance.”

“We know we’re going in, that we’re in a dangerous profession. But that doesn’t mean that we willingly want to be injured or sick. And we want to be taken care of,” Foster said.

Last month, KXAN reported the Austin Fire Department is trying to detect cancer as early as possible, through firefighter cancer screenings with dogs trained to detect it. AFD said it will be working on sending breath samples to dogs with the Firefighter Cancer Screening Dog Trial conducted by Cancerdogs.ca.

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