City drops legal fight over Salem firefighter’s 2019 cancer death

Salem city leaders will stop fighting a former city firefighter’s widow over workplace injury benefits after a years-long legal battle.

City Manager Keith Stahley announced Monday the city would withdraw its appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court challenging an appellate judge’s finding that former firefighter Mo Stadeli’s 2019 death from tonsillar cancer was related to his work.

Stahley notified the Salem City Council of the decision at its Monday meeting as more than a dozen demonstrators sat in the audience wearing red shirts with the message, “Support your local firefighters.” Minutes earlier, many more had gathered outside the Salem Fire Department’s downtown station before picketing along Southeast Liberty Street toward council chambers.

The decision comes about two weeks after the city appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Stadeli died in February 2019.

At the start of the council meeting, Stahley apologized to Stadeli’s widow. “Anyone who serves their community for 30 years deserves our respect. Mo has my respect. I’m sorry that the city’s actions have conveyed a different message,” he said. “That was not our intention. After receiving further input from city council early earlier this evening I have directed city attorney Dan Atchinson to withdraw the petition to the Oregon Supreme Court to review the decision.”

Mo Stadeli (left) with his wife, Tina Stadeli (Ardeshir Tabrizian/Salem Reporter)

In December 2019, the city denied the Stadeli family’s claim for worker’s compensation benefits. City attorneys later argued in court filings that it consulted medical experts who determined that a pre-existing medical condition most likely caused his illness. 

An administrative law judge supported that finding in an April 2021 ruling. But the state Workers Compensation Board reversed the decision eight months later, finding that the experts did not rule out firefighting as a cause, according to court documents.

Under state law, cancers of the throat and mouth are presumed to be a work-related illness if contracted by firefighters who have worked more than five years.

The city dropping the case means Stadeli’s widow will receive worker’s compensation benefits, which are payments given to workers and their families when they suffer illness or injury as a result of their job. 

The city in January 2022 sought a review of the decision by the state Court of Appeals. The court ruled on Sept. 13 that the city did not prove Stadeli’s illness was not work-related under state law, court records showed.

Three days later, Salem firefighters escorted Stadeli’s widow, Tina Stadeli, to the International Association of Fire Fighters’ Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Colorado Springs, where her husband’s name was placed on the memorial wall, according to a news release from the union’s Oregon branch.

She told Salem Reporter that she was traveling back home from the memorial when a Salem Fire captain told her the city had again challenged the matter of her husband’s death – this time to the supreme court.

Tina Stadeli said her husband asked her on his deathbed to push for the families of local firefighters to have recourse in the event that they face a similar tragedy.

“The city needs to recognize that my husband was a firefighter here protecting the people, the citizens of the city for 28 years, and that he gave his very life to the city,” she said on Monday, hours before the city announced it was dropping the matter. “I’m not after their money. What I’m after is for the future of the firefighters that get cancer.”

Demonstrators picket along Southeast Liberty Street just before a Salem City Council meeting on Monday, Sept. 25. City officials that evening announced they would drop a legal fight with a former city firefighter’s widow over workplace injury benefits. (Ardeshir Tabrizian/Salem Reporter)

Stahley became city manager after the city pressed for the Court of Appeals to review the matter and before that court made a decision.

He told Salem Reporter on Monday that the appellate judges who ruled earlier on the matter misinterpreted Oregon’s worker compensation law – requiring medical experts to have an impossible level of certainty about the cause of some diseases.

“If the court of appeals decision stands, the city of Salem and other Oregon employers will pay higher workers compensation insurance premiums and pay more in claims for some illnesses or injuries that are unrelated to working conditions,” he said at the time.

Stahley announced hours later at the council meeting that the city would be withdrawing its appeal. He said he hoped that action would bring peace and closure to the Stadedi family, and give confidence to local firefighters that they and their families will be compensated for “the ravages of cancer that disproportionately affect firefighters.”

“With this decision, I hope that we can start the hard work of repairing relationships that were damaged in this process. Workers’ compensation law and the facts of this case are complicated and dynamic,” he said. “Reading the appeals court decision and learning more about the circumstances related to Mo’s case have clarified for me that while we may have legal argument to continue this case, the right thing to do is to bring this process to an end.”

Mayor Chris Hoy said at the meeting that the entire council had realized that the right decision was to withdraw the city’s appeal.

“I know we struggled with this decision before., and after further information and further reflection, I think we all realized that we made a mistake. And I don’t think it’s a sign of weakness to change your decision or admit a mistake. I think it’s just a sign of people understanding what’s right and what’s not,” he said. “ I’m happy that we are able to move forward and I am very sorry for the harm we’ve caused to Mo’s spouse.”

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.