The Tennessee Supreme Court Expands Workers' Compensation Statute of Limitations

October 1, 2007

Decision

Recently, the Tennessee Supreme Court examined the applicable statute of limitations for filing workers’ compensation claims in cases where the employee suffers from an occupational disease.  In Brown v. Erachem Comilog, Inc., the trial court dismissed the employee’s suit as untimely, reasoning that the statute of limitations began to run when the employee gave notice to the employer that s/he had an occupational disease.  The Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel affirmed the trial court's decision.  The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed, holding that claims involving occupational diseases are governed by Tennessee Code Annotated section 50-6-306(a).  This statute provides that the statute of limitations in an occupational disease case begins to run when an employee knows or should know that 1) she has an occupational disease and 2) thatit has affected the employee’s capacity to work to a degree amounting to a compensable injury.  In this case, even though the employee was informed that her cancer was work-related three years earlier, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that her claim for benefits was timely because she filed her suit within one year of becoming incapacitated from working because of her cancer (and not from the treatment she was receiving for her cancer). 

Background

In 1991, Shirley Brown began working at Erachem, a manufacturer of electrolytic manganese dioxide, a black powder product used in dry cell batteries.  In 1999, Ms. Brown was diagnosed with lung cancer.  In February 2000, she was informed that her cancer was caused by exposure to the chemicals at Erachem, information that she immediately shared with her employer.  Ms. Brown underwent surgery that same month and missed several months of work.  She eventually returned to Erachem and continued to do the same job with no restrictions.

Ms. Brown underwent further treatment and missed more work in December 2001.  She again returned to work a few months later.  In the spring of 2002, the cancer returned.  However, Ms. Brown continued to work until July 11, 2002.  Ms. Brown filed for workers’ compensation benefits on April 7, 2003.  She died on November 11, 2003.

The trial court dismissed her suit for benefits as untimely, reasoning that the statute of limitations began to run in February 2000 when Ms. Brown gave notice to Erachem that she had cancer and that it was work-related.  The Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel affirmed the trial court’s judgment, holding that “[o]ccupational disease cases are treated the same as gradually developing injuries for the purposes of determining the statute of limitations.”

In overruling the Appeals Panel, the Tennessee Supreme Court noted that gradually developing injuries were governed by Tennessee Code Annotated section 50-6-224(1), the one-year statute of limitations for accidental injuries.  Claims involving occupational diseases, however, were governed by Tennessee Code Annotated section 50-6-306(a), which states that the statute of limitations begins to run “as of the date of the beginning of incapacity for work resulting from an occupational disease.”  Thus, for the purpose of the statute of limitations, “the beginning of the incapacity for work resulting from an occupation disease” starts when the employee is unable to perform her regular employment duties, not from the date of treatment.  “It is injury from the disease, rather than the disease, which entitles an employee to compensation.”  In sum, the Court ruled that the statute of limitations for an occupational disease claim in Tennessee is not triggered by an employee’s notice of her injury if the injury has not yet become incapacitating.  In this case, Ms. Brown was able to perform her job until July 11, 2002.  Ms. Brown’s intermittent periods of absence did not start the statute of limitations running because the absences were related to the treatment of the disease, not to the disease itself.  Ms. Brown filed her claim in April, 2003, making it timely.

Conclusion

Employers need to be aware that employees now have a longer (potentially much longer) period of time in which to make a claim for workers’ compensation benefits in Tennessee for occupational diseases.  It is not until the employee becomes incapacitated that the one-year clock begins to tick.   

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