At 9:38 a.m. on April 10, 2019, city officials in Durham received word that a contractor drilling a downtown sidewalk had accidentally ruptured a 5 cm gas line. Firefighters were evacuating people when a massive gas explosion occurred half an hour later.
The blast, which occurred on the city’s 150th birthday, destroyed one building, shattered windows in Duke University’s downtown campus, and caused a huge fire that firefighters spent hours trying to bring under control. A 61-year-old coffee shop owner was killed and 25 people injured, nine of which were Durham firefighters. One of them, Darren Wheeler, suffered critical injuries.
Firefighters, police officers, EMTs, and other first responders routinely face dangerous situations with urgency and courage, risking their safety to save others. As the Durham explosion illustrates, they rescue people while a disaster is in progress and provide support during recovery and rebuilding efforts, often working long hours with little rest.
The Risks Faced by First Responders
Many first responders are injured due to the risks they take during emergencies that range from building fires and car accidents to natural disasters and acts of terrorism. Below are some examples of hazards that accompany different types of accident or disaster:
- Fighting huge fires in both urban and forest regions can cause burn injuries, smoke inhalation, heat exhaustion, and physical injury.
- Searching for injury victims in areas devastated by hurricanes or explosions involves significant risk to rescue and recovery personnel.
- Multi-vehicle pile-ups, mudslides, and other obstacles on major highways present a dangerous condition to first responders tasked with clearing the road and tending to anyone who’s been injured.
As with any other occupation, first responders may be entitled to workers’ compensation for injuries and death caused by their service to the public.
Workers’ Compensation for First Responders in North Carolina
First responders injured in the line of duty may be entitled to workers’ compensation to cover their medical costs, lost wages, and disability. If their injuries are due to lack of training or insufficient protective gear, they may also be eligible for further compensation.
Workers’ compensation is typically available only to employees, but in North Carolina, the law (North Carolina General Statute 97-2) makes an exception for certain types of first responder:
- Volunteer firefighters
- Members of an auxiliary police department
- Senior members of the State Civil Air Patrol
- Authorized pickup firefighters
- Members of organized rescue squads
First responders face certain challenges with workers’ compensation claims. Exposure to smoke, gases, and other hazardous materials have caused respiratory disease, cancer, and other illnesses. The problem is that workers’ compensation frequently denies claims for these conditions because they can also affect the general public and are therefore not occupational. When this happens, a North Carolina workers’ compensation attorney can help injured responders get the benefits they need and deserve.
Other Legal Remedies for First Responders
In some cases, injured first responders and their families may be eligible for different or additional forms of compensation, such as:
- A third-party lawsuit: If an injury is caused by third-party negligence, such as a careless motorist or faulty protective equipment, the victim may be able to file a separate lawsuit against the party at fault.
- Wrongful death lawsuit: When a first responder is killed on the job, their family may be able to file a wrongful death claim to address the loss of income and other damages.
Let Us Help
The entities that employ first responders carry workers’ compensation insurance to protect workers injured in the line of duty, but legitimate claims are often denied and payouts are not always sufficient to meet the worker’s needs. At Copeley Johnson & Groninger PLLC, we understand how complex these claims can be and will fight to ensure that you receive the benefits you need.
Our team includes two board-certified North Carolina workers’ compensation attorneys, one of whom wrote a book on the subject. We understand what you’re going through and what you need and are pleased to offer free workers’ compensation representation to any Durham first responder injured during the explosion. We can also help you file an appeal if your previous claim was denied.
If you are a first responder who has been injured, contact Copeley Johnson & Groninger PLLC or call 919-646-4220 to schedule a consultation. Let us help you and your family overcome your financial worries so that you can focus on healing.