When injuries on the job occur, the victim generally knows it. Workplace accidents happen on specific dates, and even workers diagnosed with repetitive stress injuries are frequently aware of when their symptoms arose, and what specific actions seem to trigger pain. This is one of the reasons that workers’ compensation laws impose maximum times after an injury occurs for an employee to file a claim: called statutes of limitations, these rules are imposed to provide employers with a reasonable time limit during which legal proceedings can be filed. But what happens when an employee sustains an on-the-job occupational injury without immediately realizing it or connecting the dots? What happens when a physical condition is not attributed to the workplace until the statute of limitations has passed? Are these claims barred and the injured worker left without recourse?
The state of New Jersey has specifically addressed occupational injuries that fall outside of the state’s two-year statute of limitations, and has sided with the injured employees. An occupational injury is defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as “any wound or damage to the body resulting from an event in the work environment”. These can include skin diseases or respiratory conditions from exposure to chemicals or other substances, poisoning, hearing loss, and cumulative or immediate physical injuries.
In a notable recent case, an employee who worked for a masonry company for a 5-month period in 2010 filed a workers’ compensation claim for an occupational injury more than two years after he left the job. Though he had experienced back pain that he described as “excruciating” while working for the company, he did not recognize the work as the direct cause of this pain because he had a history of back pain, and therefore did not seek medical treatment for his condition until two years later in 2012.
Upon examination, his physician compared MRI results from before his time working for the company to those from afterwards. The doctor found significant changes to his physical condition, and attributed his injury specifically to the work he had done in 2010. The employee subsequently submitted a claim for workers’ compensation benefits which the masonry company denied, stating that it had been submitted beyond the statute of limitations. In their argument they pointed out that since the employee had complained of pain in 2010, his claim would have needed to have been filed within two years of that date, and that his petition was not timely. The court reviewed the facts of the case and ruled in the employee’s favor, and the company subsequently appealed this decision.
In reviewing the case, the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division upheld the original court’s decision, pointing out that though the statute of limitations bars petitions filed beyond two years from the date an employee’s injury is linked to employment, there are specific challenges to this type of link involving occupational diseases. The court said that the “statute of limitations for occupational disease does not begin to run until pertinent medical diagnosis is completely established to the knowledge of the claimant that the … disability is work related.”
The court decided that the employee was “unaware of the nature of the occupational disability” and entered an order directing the employer to pay all accrued benefits.
So what does this mean for New Jersey workers? The statute of limitations rules are clear. If you have been involved in an accident or diagnosed with an illness or injury, it is essential that you file your claim for workers’ compensation benefits within two years of that diagnosis, and the sooner the better. But there can be a difference between time of symptoms and the time of diagnosis, and the courts recognize that as an employee you do not have the medical expertise required to make the connection.
If you have recently been diagnosed with an illness or injury connected with work performed more than two years ago, you still maintain your rights to compensation, but you will need a knowledgeable and aggressive advocate working on your behalf. The attorneys at Shebell & Shebell have the experience and resources you need to fight for your rights. Contact us today to learn how we can help.