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Willowick ordered to pay Michael Palumbo's family firefighter cancer benefits under Palumbo Act

Posted at 3:42 PM, Jul 31, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-01 11:20:06-04

WILLOWICK, Ohio — The family of a Michael Louis Palumbo Jr. will receive benefits created by the Michael Louis Palumbo Jr. Act.

In an order shared with News 5 Tuesday morning, a Staff Hearing Officer with the Ohio Industrial Commission ordered the City of Willowick to pay death benefits created by the Palumbo Act to Michael Palumbo’s wife, Chrissy, and their five children.

The officer, Rhonda Patsouras, found Palumbo’s death from glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer, in 2017 was an occupational disease and was “contracted in the course of and arising out of his employment” with the City of Willowick.

This means Palumbo's family meets the requirements to qualify for presumptive cancer benefits created by the law named for him.

Battle for benefits

Palumbo worked part-time as a firefighter in Willowick, his hometown, since January 1, 1990.

Before he lost his battle with brain cancer on May 24, 2017, Chrissy filed claims for death benefits with Willowick and the City of Beachwood, where Mike served as a fire captain.

Both objected to her claims.

"It's hurtful," she said during an on-camera intervew in May. "It's hard not to take personal."

"I have a loyalty to them... Where's their loyalty to my family?," said Palumbo.

Sharing his story

Before Palumbo shared his battle with brain cancer with 5 On Your Side Investigators, Ohio was among the handful of states that failed to acknowledge the link between cancer and fighting fires, leaving firefighters without workers' compensation benefits as they battled the potentially deadly disease.

Despite years of request for help, legislation to award firefighters what are known as presumptive cancer benefits through workers’ compensation claims was mired in bureaucracy.

The Ohio Municipal League, a lobbying group representing towns and cities, opposed the bill, telling state lawmakers it would cost as much as $75 million.

“If they need a face to put to it, I'm willing to be that face,” he said. “Firefighters need to be covered.”

INITIAL REPORT: OH fails firefighters facing cancer

Knowing his cancer was aggressive, Palumbo said he wanted to retire to spend more time with his wife and children.

“It's a great job,” he said. “But my family is more important.”

Instead, he kept working to help cover the costs of his cancer.

Less than a year after our interview, a struggling Palumbo at his side, former Ohio Governor John Kasich signed a bill awarding workers’ compensation benefits to firefighters with cancer.

Beachwood settles

After initially refusing to provide benefits to the family, Beachwood recently reached a settlement with Palumbo.

Palumbo's attorney and the City of Beachwood sent this joint statement to News 5 Thursday morning:

"The City of Beachwood and the Palumbo family are jointly announcing that they have reached an amicable and confidential agreement in principle regarding the settlement of the benefit claims in the death of firefighter Michael Palumbo. No claims will remain against the City of Beachwood following the finalization of the settlement of this case.

City of Beachwood Mayor, Martin S. Horwitz, on behalf of the Administration, said, “We deeply appreciate and respect Captain Palumbo’s many years of service to our City. We hope the settlement, agreed upon by both parties, will bring some measure of closure and comfort to the Palumbo family.” City Council President Brian Linick, on behalf of Council, said, “We wish to convey our deep appreciation for Captain Palumbo’s many years of service and hope this resolution brings some peace to the entire Palumbo family.”

“We are grateful to the City, its Administration and Council for taking the initiative to resolve this matter. While no amount of money will ever replace the loss of Michael, we hope that his legacy lives on in the Michael Louis Palumbo Jr. Act,” said Chrissy Palumbo. “The settlement with Beachwood brings our family one step closer in closing this tragic chapter in our lives.”

Willowick's Response

During a hearing July 16, Willowick argued there was not enough evidence Palumbo was exposed to carcinogens that caused his cancer.

However, Patsouras found records showed Palumbo fought numerous fires where he would have been exposed to toxic substances. She also noted nine years of records from Willowick were missing.

The City of Willowick has 14 days to file another appeal regarding the staff hearing officer’s order.

Palumbo hopes this chapter in her life is over so she can continue healing and caring for her and Mike's children.

“I would hope they [the cities] realize that the Michael Palumbo Act should apply to Michael Palumbo and his family,” she said.