Vanessa Walsh was shocked when the state said it wouldn't pay survivor benefits after her husband, a Federal Way police officer, died in his patrol car while guarding a crime scene last year.
An autopsy found that Brian Walsh, 34, succumbed to natural causes – an irregular heart beat and mild artery blockage – leading the state Department of Labor and Industries to rule that his death was not caused by his job.
“I felt like his being denied line-of-duty status was a slap in the face for all we’ve done for the community and our state,” Vanessa Walsh told a state Senate committee recently.
The Legislature is considering two bills that would make it easier for people like Vanessa Walsh and her three children to qualify for survivor benefits following the death of a police officer from a heart attack or stroke.
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“It doesn’t matter if it’s a bullet or a heart attack, it’s a duty-related death,” Brian Wurts, a board member of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, which supports the measure, said at the legislative hearing.
The Federal Way City Council is expected to vote tonight to support both the House and Senate bills. A City Council committee already recommended taking that step.
The legislative proposal is opposed by some groups that represent local governments that employ police. They say they haven’t seen scientific studies proving a strong correlation between those health problems and police work, any more than any other stressful job. They also worry about the costs.
Currently, L&I pays survivor benefits when a police officer dies of a heart attack following unusually physical or emotional exertion not normally expected on the job.
The department’s review of Brian Walsh’s death concluded he was performing “the normal and expected duties of a police officer” at the time of his death, according to a letter from L&I to Vanessa Walsh denying the claim last year.
Had her claim been approved, she would have been entitled to 60 percent of her husband’s monthly wages, with an additional 2 percent for each of her children until they reached 18 years old. The family also would have received about $4,000 immediately following the death and $7,000 for burial costs.
Vanessa Walsh currently is on a leave of absence from teaching at Rocky Ridge Elementary in Graham.
Under Senate Bill 5354, the death of a police officer from a heart attack or stroke would be deemed work-related if it occurred within 24 hours of participating in various activities, including responding to an emergency that could pose danger and provoke fear or anxiety.
The exception would be if there is medical evidence to show the death wasn’t work-related, such as an underlying health condition.
House Bill 1445 is nearly identical, except it’s been amended to substitute “heart problems” for “heart attack.”
Current law says heart problems among firefighters in certain circumstances are presumed to be occupational diseases. Both bills before the Legislature would add strokes as an occupational illness for firefighters.
Walsh died last year while he was working as a perimeter guard while detectives investigated an incident in which two Federal Way officers shot and wounded a suspect in a stolen car. The shooting occurred about 2 a.m. March 21. Walsh joined the scene at about 2:30 a.m. and was found collapsed in his patrol car about four hours later.
The Washington Self-Insurers Association, which represents some local governments that are self-insured employers, opposes the bill. The association argues there is insufficient scientific evidence linking the work of firefighters to strokes, and of police officers to either heart attacks or strokes.
“We recognize this is a sensitive and emotional issue for all concerned,” Kathleen Collins, the association’s lobbying coordinator, told lawmakers.
“However, we also recognize that it is important to have clear laws related to presumption of occupational diseases and to make sure that there is supportable and scientific evidence of the causation between the job and the disease,” she said.
Staff writer Steve Maynard contributed to this report.