Generally, petitions filed by injured workers for occupational disease claims are barred if they are not filed within two years of the date the injured worker discovered the nature of the disability and it relationship to employment. This is addressed in the workers’ compensation law under N.J.S.A. 34:15-34.
Unlike an accident, which has a specific date, the precise onset of an occupational disease may be hard to determine. In Earl v. Johnson and Johnson, the court recognized that the period of time for filing an occupational disease claim does not run until two years after the date the injured worker knew the “nature of the occupational disability and its relationship to employment.” What the court meant by that statement has been the subject of many court appeals. In the Earl v. Johnson and Johnson case the court defined the two year statute of limitations as beginning to run when the worker has “knowledge of the most notable characteristics of the disease, sufficient to bring home substantial realization of its extent and seriousness.” Again, that statement is not precise.
In a recent case Teague v. Palermo Brothers Masonry, the injured worker, Mr. Teague, worked for this employer from May 2010 to September 15, 2010, but did not file his workers’ compensation claim petition claiming an occupational back injury until August 29, 2012. Mr. Teague testified that he had excruciating back pain while working during May or June of 2010. He was first examined by his doctor for this back condition on July 18, 2012, and his doctor wrote a report that stated that Mr. Teague’s back condition was related to the heavy work he did in the year 2010 with this employer.
The employer raised a statute of limitations defense claiming that since Mr. Teague complained of back pain in May or June of 2010 he had to file his workers’ compensation petitioner within two years of that date. The court considered all of the circumstances and came to the conclusion that under the Earl case sited above, Mr. Teague did file a timely occupational disease claim.
The court stated that although Mr. Teague knew he was experiencing pain during the course of his work, the medical diagnosis of his condition did not occur until well after the work ended. Therefore, under the Earl case, Mr. Teague was diagnosed with an occupational disease on July 18, 2012 and filed his claim on August 29, 2012, well within the required two year period of time. The court went on to state that they were satisfied that Mr. Teague was unaware of the nature of his occupational disability until he was evaluated by the orthopedic doctor on July 18, 2012 and affirmed the trial Judge’s order for workers’ compensation benefits.
The moral of the story is that you must file a workers’ compensation claim petition within two years from the first time you go to a doctor who examines you for a work-related occupational disease. If you don’t, you may be foreclosed from ever filing a claim.
For any New Jersey workers’ compensation questions, we strongly encourage that you consult with an experienced Workers’ Compensation attorney.