Workers' compensation claims allow employees who suffer a work-related injury to claim benefits from their employer's insurance carrier. However, in addition to providing workers with benefits, workers' compensation statutes protect employers by creating a statute of limitations which bars claims that are not made timely.
Deciphering the different specifications within the Alabama workers' compensation statutes can be tricky, which is why you need the guidance of an experienced injury attorney.
The effects of statute of limitations in workers' compensation cases is illustrated in a recent Fifth circuit case called Patrick v. Wal-Mart. This case involves a Wal-Mart employee injuring her lower back while stocking shelves in a Mississippi Wal-Mart store.
Teresa Patrick (plaintiff) injured her back in 1997 and brought a workers' compensation (WC) claim against her employer Wal-Mart and its insurer National Union Fire Insurance Company (collectively, defendants). The facts of the case were brought to be disputed in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
Plaintiff argued that her lower back injuries were caused by her work for Wal-Mart. Wal-mart countered with the argument that the plaintiff's back injuries could not have possibly been caused by the plaintiff's work stocking shelves. In 1998 despite the contradictory arguments, the ALJ found that the plaintiff was entitled to temporary disability benefits for eleven months. Because the extent of the plaintiff's injuries could not yet be determined, the ALJ left the decision for any additional benefits due to permanency of the injury, open to be discussed at a later time.
Defendants paid the plaintiff the bulk sum award. Plaintiff left work with Wal-mart and began working in other capacities for different employers. This lower back injury the plaintiff suffered continued to be agitated until plaintiff brought another action against the defendants for additional benefits for her work-related back injury.
Five years after the entry of the first judgment for the plaintiff, the ALJ re-heard the facts of the workers' compensation case. The ALJ found that the plaintiff was permanently disabled because of the back injury she obtained working for Wal-Mart, and awarded the plaintiff necessary and reasonable medical expenses incurred because of this injury.
Additionally, the defendants were required to pay the plaintiff monthly benefit payments because of the permanency of her injury.
The defendant's disagreed with this ALJ decision. Defendants argued that the plaintiff's claim for permanent disability came too late, as it was over the statutory time allotted by statute. In Mississippi, an injured worker has three years from the date the injury was discovered or diagnosed to bring a claim for damages.
Plaintiff argued that because the ALJ's decision in 1998 was not final, the clock for the statute of limitations had not begun to tick. Thus, she argued that the final decision in this workers' compensation case came in 2005.
The confusion arose because of the word "final." Because the 1998 ALJ's decision left certain things undecided, this decision was considered interlocutory. However, this court notes that the decision was interlocutory as to the plaintiff's substantial rights but considered a final judgment for procedural law.
Because it would not be consistent with the legislative intent of workers' compensation laws to only allow a decision to be final when all of the potential benefits are awarded. This would only create an unjust result leading to decades worth of litigation for work-related injuries. Thus, the plaintiff's second suit was considered to be barred because it was not brought within three years of the date of her injury.