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No Pennsylvania Workers' Comp Act for latent occupational illness

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently issued an important ruling for people who develop illnesses caused by something in their workplace environments. Some diseases aren’t immediately apparent but take years or even decades to manifest. In this case, the disease in question was mesothelioma, a deadly cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, but the ruling presumably applies to any work-related medical condition that wouldn’t ordinarily be diagnosed within about six years.

The time limit for filing a claim the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act is 300 weeks, or five years and 40 weeks, from the date of the injury or the last known exposure to the hazard causing the disease. And, under most circumstances, people who are injured or develop illnesses through work-related activity must file their claims exclusively through workers’ comp -- they cannot sue their own employers.

It turns out that the combination of that time limit with the fact that workplace injury and illness claims must be handled exclusively through workers’ comp was having a tragic, unintended impact on victims of mesothelioma, as the court found.

When two men learned they had developed mesothelioma from workplace asbestos exposure, it was far too late to file a workers’ comp claim. One worked as a salesman of industrial asbestos products from 1964 until 1982; the other worked from 1946 to 1992 for chemical companies that used asbestos. Neither man’s cancer was diagnosed until 2007 -- 15 years or longer after the last date of exposure.

With the workers’ comp deadline passed, they tried to sue their employers for exposing them to the deadly fiber. Since occupational illnesses generally must be handled through workers’ comp, however, their employers said the men were barred from suing them directly. The men were pinned between a workers’ comp system with deadlines too short for their particular illnesses and a civil liability system apparently denied to them by law.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court reasoned that the legislature could not have intended to leave those workers suffering the most serious of all work-related medical conditions without any redress. Therefore, latent occupational diseases could not have been meant to be included in the Workers’ Compensation Act. In other words, the men have every right to sue their employers for exposing them to asbestos.

Source: The Pennsylvania Record, “Pa. Supreme Court: workers can sue employers over latent occupational diseases,” Jon Campisi, Dec. 13, 2013

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