The State Worker

Jon Ortiz: To pay or not to pay? Cal Fire death benefits hinge on obscure law

Paul Goyette, president and CEO of Goyette and Associates law firm, discusses a case involving families of contracted air tanker pilots killed in the line of duty who have filed a claim against Cal Fire saying it failed to pay death benefits required by state law. The claim alleges that Cal Fire officials committed fraud by hiding the law from surviving family members since lawmakers passed it in 2002.
Paul Goyette, president and CEO of Goyette and Associates law firm, discusses a case involving families of contracted air tanker pilots killed in the line of duty who have filed a claim against Cal Fire saying it failed to pay death benefits required by state law. The claim alleges that Cal Fire officials committed fraud by hiding the law from surviving family members since lawmakers passed it in 2002. aseng@sacbee.com

A recent complaint alleging that Cal Fire owes millions of dollars in death benefits for fire pilots comes down to this: Does it matter whose insignia was on the plane?

The complaint says that Cal Fire officials at the highest levels misled families and withheld information about a state law that requires the department to pay death benefits when a contracted fire pilot is killed in the line of duty. The total amount owed is at least $4 million plus interest, attorney Paul Goyette says, and maybe a lot more.

At issue is whether the business interplay between the federal government and the state obligates Cal Fire to pay federally contracted pilots’ death benefits. The feds don’t pay death benefits for any contractors.

State law says Cal Fire pays if a contracted pilot’s family doesn’t receive the federal benefit, “irrespective of whether the department contracts directly with the pilot or contracts with a third party that employs or contracts with pilots.”

Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said in an email that the department believes the California law applies “only to pilots contracted directly with Cal Fire to operate state owned planes.”

Goyette counters that “third party” includes pilots contracted by the U.S. Forest Service, which has an agreement to fight fires with the state and split the costs. Twelve pilots fell into that category. And what about survivors of two other pilots? They met Cal Fire’s more narrow criteria, Goyette said, but received nothing.

Upton said Cal Fire is reviewing eligibility records for all 14 pilots.

Steve and Marci Vandergriend say the department encouraged them to apply for $303,000 in federal death benefits after their son, Zachary, died piloting an air tanker in service to Cal Fire. But he was working for a federal contractor, so the feds didn’t pay.

But while they chased the long-shot federal case for six years through several appeals, Steve Vandergriend said, “Cal Fire should have at least told us about this fallback position.”

Cal Fire emails and letters obtained by The Bee indicate that in 2011 the department dispatched an emissary to federal officials in Montana with a letter asking them to pay benefits for federally contracted pilots killed in the line of duty.

“(A)ir tanker pilots should receive the same benefit as a ground attack firefighter when they pay the ultimate sacrifice,” Director Ken Pimlott said in the letter to the feds.

Beyond that, it’s unclear what Cal Fire has done to lobby a change in the federal death benefits standard because the department didn’t answer requests for details about specific efforts.

Cal Fire did not, however, ask state lawmakers a couple blocks from its Sacramento headquarters to clarify or expand the state law.

“Our focus,” Upton said, “has been on advocating for the federal government to provide benefits for federal pilots they contract with, just as the (state law) allows us to do for state contracted pilots.”

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