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Q: I’ve been dealing with pain from repetitive motion at my job, but I haven’t done anything about it because my boss gets really hostile to employees who file workers’ compensation claims. A friend told me something about a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court

A:

It’s true as far as it goes, but it probably won’t help your case.

The general rule is that workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy for people hurt on the job in

Pennsylvania. At our Harrisburg law offices, we regularly tell injured workers that they cannot sue their employers. Like most general rules, though, this one has exceptions. For instance:

  • You can file a lawsuit if your employer has hurt you intentionally or by reckless actions.
  • You can sue if your employer does not provide workers’ compensation coverage.
  • You can take your employer or his insurance provider to court if your workers’ compensation benefits are denied or terminated too early.
  • You can file a lawsuit if a third party—not your employer or coworker—caused your workplace injury.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently added another exception to the rules. However, this new loophole is a very narrow one that will probably apply only to a tiny number of cases.

The Landis and Tooey Decisions

Late in 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled on two similar cases, Landis v. A.W. Chesterton and Tooey v. A.K. Steel Corp. Both cases dealt with workers’ compensation coverage for occupational diseases that had developed over a long time—specifically, mesothelioma, a lung disease associated with asbestos exposure.

Under Pennsylvania law, a person who has been exposed to hazardous materials in the workplace has 300 weeks—about six years—after the last exposure to file a workers’ compensation claim for any resulting illness. Mesothelioma is a slowly developing cancer, however, and Landis and Tooey, the plaintiffs in these cases, only showed symptoms of the illness long after the 300-week time period had passed. When they tried to claim workers’ compensation benefits, their employers said no because the time limit had expired. The employers also asserted that they couldn’t be sued in court because the workers’ compensation law gave them immunity to lawsuits.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed. Its decision told the plaintiffs that they could not claim workers’ compensation benefits because the time limit for filing the claim was outside the boundaries of the law. However, the Court decided that if the workers’ compensation law couldn’t give relief to the employees, then it couldn’t shelter the employers either. The plaintiffs will be allowed to sue their employers for damages due to negligent exposure to asbestos in the workplace.

Can Tooey Apply to Your Case?

On the face of it, it seems unlikely that this new change in the law can help your repetitive motion injury at work. Maybe if your injury was caused by a defective industrial machine or power tool, you would have a viable third-party negligence claim. But the brief description you have provided makes it very unlikely that the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision will change the rules that apply in your case.

We’re sympathetic that it will not be comfortable for you to file a workers’ compensation claim, but that may be the exclusive remedy available to you.

Here’s what you must do going forward. Notify your human resources department (or whoever handles workers’ compensation claims) about your pain from the workplace injury. As soon as possible after that, get a thorough medical examination from one of the doctors approved by your company to handle workers’ compensation cases. Then contact a reputable Pennsylvania workers’ compensation attorney to let you know precisely what laws will apply to your situation. This is always a good idea when you have a potential claim, but it’s a vital step when you believe your boss may be inclined to retaliate against you.

At Schmidt Kramer, our attorneys have a sterling record of success when helping clients from Harrisburg and other central Pennsylvania communities. We offer free, confidential case evaluations when you call us at 717-888-8888 or 888-476-0807. We’re also willing to share a FREE copy of our introductory report, Who Pays the Bills When You Are Injured at Work?

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