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Sheena H. v. W. Va. Office of Ins. Comm’r – Statute of Limitations on Workers’ Comp Claims

As with any civil proceeding, workers’ compensation claims are subject to a specified statute of limitations, which is determined by the state.
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A statute of limitations is a time period during which claims must be filed to be considered valid. The idea is courts want to limit the possibility of becoming backlogged with years-old cases for which evidence may have eroded or be non-existent. So for example in Georgia, the general rule is claims for workers’ compensation benefits have to be filed within one year of the accident date, or else the right to compensation is barred. This is different from the time limit for other types of personal injury claims, which is two years. That’s why injured workers must act quickly to secure benefits.

However, the statute of limitations can be “tolled” or postponed in certain cases. Those include situations in which income or medical benefits have been paid voluntarily by an employer to or on behalf of the injured worker. Claims involving a death have to be filed within one year of the date of death. There are also exceptions made when workers were not aware injuries were work-related.

While the Georgia State Board of Workers’ Compensation has discretion to excuse untimely notice of a work-related injury, there is no discretion to excuse late filing of a claim. So if a worker doesn’t learn his injury is related to work until three years after it occurs, his late notice of work injury may be excused. However, he would only have one year from the time he found out in which to file a claim.

Our Atlanta workers’ compensation attorneys know this is a far more complex area of litigation than most people realize, and it requires an experienced legal advocate.

Typically, the standard for excusing a delay is whether knowledge that an injury, disease or death was work-related is obtainable through reasonable diligence prior to the statute of limitations’ expiration.

Take for example the recent case of Sheena H. v. W. Va. Office of Ins. Comm’r, before the West Virginia Supreme Court. In that case, the statute of limitations for workers’ compensation claims is just six month from the date of accident or death.

In that state, the statute of limitations for workers’ compensation death benefits can never be tolled. However, the state supreme court found the legislature’s intent was not to bar death benefits when, due to delays in preparing an autopsy report, there was no indication the death might have been work-related until eight months after the worker’s passing.

Here, worker was a 24-year-old coal miner and died in his sleep from a seizure. His mother, on behalf of his six-year-old daughter, petitioned for workers’ compensation death benefits for the child. She only filed after the autopsy report showed the seizure was caused by an injury he suffered 22 months earlier, when a wrench from above and struck him on the head. The injury rendered him unconscious at the time, and resulted in a large knot on his head.

He was transported to the hospital, but neither he, his employer or the doctor realized the severity of the injury. He was prescribed pain medication and sent home. He returned to work a few days later and he never received temporary benefits because he wasn’t off work more than three days.

Nearly two years later, he died in his sleep. An autopsy was performed the day after his death, but, for reasons not exactly clear, the autopsy report wasn’t finished or made available to his family until more than eight months after his death. The report indicated his death was the result of a traumatic seizure disorder stemming from the work-related injury.

Although there was conflicting information about whether the family knew he was suffering seizures in the time since his accident, he did live alone and there was no medical evidence at any point linking his death to his work injury.

Dependents of deceased workers have six months to apply for benefits after the date of death, and the trial court ruled in favor of defendant, since a claim for benefits wasn’t filed until eight months after death. Here, the state supreme court ruled, the statute of limitations should be tolled where his family could not have known, even through reasonable diligence, that his death was caused by his work-related injury prior to the issuance of that autopsy report.

Thus, the order was reversed and the claim for benefits was given a chance to proceed.

For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-303-7770.

Additional Resources:
Sheena H. v. W. Va. Office of Ins. Comm’r, April 10, 2015, West Virginia Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Reports: Workers’ Compensation Protections on Chopping Block, March 20, 2015, Atlanta Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog