Polk County paramedic wins fight for cancer disability benefits

State retirement system approves line of duty argument

ORLANDO, Fla. – A medical evaluation by physicians in pulmonary and oncology medicine convinced the Florida Retirement System to approve “line-of-duty” disability retirement benefits for Polk County Fire Rescue paramedic Christina Lambert Pierson just 3 months after sharing her fight for cancer benefits with News 6.

The written decision issued May 24, has given Pierson new hope in her fight for full benefits from the county.

“Thankfully, the right door was finally opened and I can’t be any more grateful for that,” Pierson told News 6. ”We’re getting it more known.”

Pierson who devoted 6 years as a firefighter/paramedic for Polk County was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer on Oct. 3, 2018.

The state law which covers 21 cancers including lung cancer was signed by Governor Ron DeSantis 9 months after her diagnosis.

“At the moment I’m on maintenance chemo,” Pierson told News 6, ‘Basically because my Oncologist is going to find out what’s next.”

When Pierson learned the state law was going into effect she was sure she would be eligible for medical coverage and a one-time benefit of $25,000, but the county argued because the diagnosis came after the law went on the books, Pierson would not be eligible.

Pierson told News 6 “big-name law firms” refused to take her case but Maitland attorney Geoff Bichler never hesitated.

Bichler, a long-time voice for first responders across the country, was surprised at the quick decision by the Florida Retirement System.

“I think it’s going to have an enormous impact on firefighters that become disabled with one of these cancers,” Bichler told News 6. “This is a huge victory.”

The victory is a first step in the legal wrangling for benefits that seem to hinge on the date of Pierson’s diagnosis.

“This is what’s so unique about Christina’s case,” Bichler said, “You had a diagnosis before the law went into effect and then you have the confirmed disability after the law went into effect.”

In a recent Tampa case, Judge Thomas Ramsberger ruled that cancer benefits under the law “are not restricted” if they occurred prior to the effective date of the law.

So far Polk County has refused to change the position but Bichler and Pierson have committed to stay the course.

“I’m not asking for something I don’t deserve,” Pierson told News 6. “I want them to say it (Line of duty disability), I’m not going to stop until they admit it, that’s what I want.”


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.