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Pennsylvania high court: workers' comp doesn't apply to asbestos

Here in Illinois and in most states, virtually all workplace injuries and occupational diseases are handled through the workers’ compensation system, which has special rules. Workers who develop job-related illnesses or injuries are covered by workers’ comp regardless of whether their employers were negligent. Balancing that is the “exclusivity rule,” which means these cases must be handled through workers’ comp; workers can’t sue for negligence.

There is generally a time limit for filing workers’ comp claims, of course. In Pennsylvania, they must be filed no later than 300 weeks from the date of the injury or first manifestation of the illness. More than five years seems reasonable enough, but it poses a serious problem for people with latent occupational diseases such as mesothelioma, in which symptoms typically don’t develop symptoms until an average of 30 to 50 years after exposure.

Two families ran into this problem recently. Each had tried to sue the former employer of a loved one who had died of mesothelioma caused by workplace asbestos exposure. Unfortunately, the men’s mesothelioma hadn’t been diagnosed until decades after they were exposed -- too late to file a workers’ comp claim. Lower courts, however, had thrown out their lawsuits as being barred by the workers’ comp exclusivity rule.

As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted, the combination of the 300-week time limit and the exclusivity rule made it virtually impossible to file a workers’ comp claim for mesothelioma at all in that state.

Yet the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives Americans the right to seek redress of grievances through our courts, so courts don’t like it when there is no legal remedy available. Moreover, the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act was passed “specifically designed to benefit employees,” the court noted. It determined it was simply inconceivable that lawmakers intended to deny those workers with the most serious occupational illnesses any chance for compensation.

Therefore, the court reasoned, the Workers’ Compensation Act must not apply to latent occupational diseases like mesothelioma. The families’ lawsuits could go forward.

One attorney for the family called this a major victory, particularly because most other states have allowed this issue to block workers’ comp claims by mesothelioma victims.

“We hope this humanitarian decision in Pennsylvania will influence other states to take action to protect the rights of those [who] have suffered due to employer neglect or misconduct,” he said.

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

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