Orange County approves firefighter’s cancer death benefit under SB 426

Separate $150,000 workers comp claim will be decided in court

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Orange County administrators voted to pay a full $75,000 cancer death benefit to the widow of veteran firefighter Eric Siena Tuesday, a decision Public Safety Director Danny Banks said reflects the administration’s support of the county’s first responders.

“We’re going to err on the side of our employees,” Banks told News 6. “And if the opinion is that it’s a line-of-duty death that family will get that benefit from us promptly.”

Under SB 426, 21 cancers including brain cancer are to be covered for all full-time firefighters who have served with their respective agencies for at least five years. The law specifically states the employer must bear the cost to provide all the benefits (medical and death) created under the legislation.

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An email sent by the county to the law firm representing the Siena estate issued the following statement: “The committee has approved this payment and it will be issued this week and sent to your attention.”

Siena’s widow Christy, who served 16 years as a paramedic with Orange County Fire and Rescue, told News 6 she received word of the county’s decision just before noon Tuesday.

“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster,” Siena told News 6. “It’s hard to lose your husband and have to fight for this, I’m glad that this part is done but there’s more to come, possibly change part of the language in the law.”

Siena said her husband’s exposure to a 2006 warehouse chemical fire in Orlando always had him on edge.

“As he started watching his friends get sick and pass away he got more and more concerned,” a tearful Siena recalled. “He told me to do something if I could.”

Photographs of the scene obtained by News 6 showed barrels clearly marked hazardous material and toxic.

Video of the scene on April 19, 2006, clearly showed Sienna’s crew and truck.

Christy Siena’s attorneys filed a $150,000 workers compensation claim in July, two months after her husband died, but the county denied the death benefit request along with a separate $75,000 worker compensation death benefits claims.

The county told News 6 it paid a $25,000 claim under SB 426 after Sienna’s cancer diagnosis in January.

Under the law that cancer diagnosis payment is deemed an “alternative to pursuing workers comp benefits.”

Maitland attorney Geoff Bichler, a long-time voice for first responders, said the $75,000 death benefit payment is a solid first step but in his view does not fall under the “alternative” provision of the diagnosis benefit.

“We believe that there is an additional responsibility that the agency has to the widow and the family,” Bichler said. “We would like to see the full additional payment.”

Bichler said Christy Siena never received out-of-pocket medical expenses or the $7,500 designated for funeral expenses promised under the existing law.

The county told News 6 the intent will always be to provide full benefits allowed under the law.

Christy Siena said once the News 6 report aired the county reached out to her for the medical expenses she had paid.

“I think this case has the potential to be a very important test case in Florida,” Bichler told News 6. “That’s why [Siena’s] case is so important because it can help the public understand this law doesn’t go far enough.”

Since November 2019, News 6 has been investigating cases that involved Florida firefighters diagnosed with cancer who haven’t been able to collect benefits.

Seven cases have been rejected by various agencies across the state while three cases are still in litigation.

To read a full summary of SB 426 click this link.

About the Author:

News 6’s Emmy Award-winning Investigative Reporter Mike Holfeld has made Central Florida history with major investigations that have led to new policies, legislative proposals and even -- state and national laws. If you have an issue or story idea, call Mike's office at 407-521-1322.