The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently handed down a decision with widespread implications for workers who suffer from a workplace-related disease. The Pennsylvania Record reported that the ruling opens the door for workers who discover an occupational disease beyond the 300-week period prescribed in the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act to file civil actions against their employers.
The decision stems from two cases before the court, Tooey v. AK Steel Corp. and Landis v. A.W. Chesterton Co., that involved similar issues. The question was whether the workers could claim disability compensation benefits or sue their employers for injuries stemming from exposure to asbestos. Both workers were diagnosed with mesothelioma. However, both diagnoses were made well after 300 weeks from their last exposure to the asbestos. Section 301(c) of the Worker’s Compensation limits the time a worker has to claim benefits resulting from an occupational disease and reads, in part:
“That whenever occupational disease is the basis for compensation, for disability or death under this act, it shall apply only to disability or death resulting from such disease and occurring within three hundred weeks after the last date of employment in an occupation or industry to which he was exposed to hazards of such disease”
Based on Section 301(c), both workers were initially denied benefits because they were outside the 300-week limitation. The Supreme Court, however, found that the Workers’ Compensation Act does not apply to latent occupational diseases or to diseases that could take years to develop and be diagnosed. Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, lower courts had wrestled with the issue with differing results, leaving workers and employers unsure about the law with regard to claims like those of the workers in the two cases before the court.
Tooey, the worker in the first case, was an industrial salesman who sold asbestos from 1964 to 1982 but was not diagnosed with mesothelioma until December 2007. Tooey died less than a year after his diagnosis. The second worker, Landis, was exposed to asbestos as part of his job from 1946 to 1992 and was also diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2007. Both workers and their spouses filed lawsuits against their employers in 2008. Both employers argued for summary judgment on the grounds that the claims were barred by the Workers’ Compensation Act.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court noted that mesothelioma has an average latency period of 30 to 50 years before the disease is diagnosed. The court pointed out that even if a victim discovers the disease early in the latency period, it would still be well outside of the 300-week time frame. Therefore, the time frame “operates as a de facto exclusion of coverage under the Act for essentially all mesothelioma claims,” the court said.
In essence, the court found that not allowing a worker to file a claim outside of the 300-week time frame for a latent disease contravenes the intended purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Act. “It is inconceivable that the legislature, in enacting a statute specifically designed to benefit employees, intended to leave a certain class of employees who have suffered the most serious of work-related injuries without any redress under the Act or at common law.”