Under the Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Act, an injured employee must file a claim ‘within four years from the date the employee first became aware of the causal relationship between his disability and his employment.’ M.G.L. c. 152 41. This statute of limitations provision is particularly beneficial for workers who have suffered rather ambiguous injuries, such as those caused by repetitive physical stress, exposure to toxic chemicals, and psychological trauma at the workplace.
Filing a claim, obviously, is the easiest way to satisfy the statute of limitations. But what about those injuries that happened many years ago but are still causing pain and discomfort for an injured employee? Fortunately, The Workers’ Compensation Act also provides several ways in which the statute of limitations can be ‘tolled,’ i.e., permanently satisfied. Aside from filing a claim, this can be achieved if (1) the insurer pays compensation to the injured employee; or (2) the insurer pays a medical bill relating to the workplace injury.
Say, for example, a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital strains her back while lifting a patient in 2003. Because of her pain, her doctors recommend that she remain out of work for one month. As such, the insurer pays the nurse’s medical bills pertaining to the back injury, in addition to disability benefits for that one month she was unable to work. Now, after returning to her job, the nurse works for the next 12 years despite the moderate discomfort in her back. Her doctor, in 2015, now says that her current pain is the result of her 2003 work injury and that she will need an injection and another month off work. Because the insurer paid the nurse’s benefits back in 2003, the statute of limitations was satisfied forever. Therefore, the nurse is not prevented from filing a claim to have the insurer pay her while she recovers for that month in 2015. (It is also important to note that even if the nurse missed no work in 2003, the statute of limitations would still be satisfied if the insurer paid for the nurse’s medical treatment, however small or nominal).
Repetitive stress injuries (ones that happen over a period of time) are also subject to the statute of limitations like any other industrial accident. However, these injuries are usually not as obvious to the injured worker with respect to the injury’s cause. A slip and fall injury, for example, is easy to assess: an employee fell at work and is now disabled. A repetitive stress injury, on the other hand, happens over the course of weeks, months, or years, and it is sometimes hard to pinpoint with respect to causation. This is where the ‘causal connection’ element of the statute of limitations provision is helpful. As stated before, the statute begins to run once the employee first becomes ‘aware of the causal relationship’ between the disability and work; and not once the injury actually occurs. So for those who have suffered a debilitating repetitive stress injury, the law provides some leniency when it comes to filing a claim. For instance, imagine the nurse form Mass. General never had a back strain in 2003. Instead, the nurse worked, without incident, for 25 years. Throughout the course of her employment, she was constantly required to lift patients, be on her feet, and push hospital beds. These activities, unbeknownst to the nurse, eventually caused her back to become so painful that she was forced to stop working in 2007. Because the nurse always felt that her back pain was simply a symptom of getting old, she never filed a claim or notified her supervisor of any workplace injury.
In 2015, eight years after she stopped working, the retired nurse’s back doctor then finds that the cause of her back pain was the repetitive job duties she performed during the 25 years she worked as a nurse, culminating in 2007 to the point where she was no longer able to work. Because the nurse has now become aware of the causal connection in 2015, she has until 2019 to file a claim for benefits.
The attorneys at KECHES LAW GROUP, P.C. are experienced in handling issues involving old work-related injuries and are qualified to help you with any inquiries you may have. If you or someone you know has been injured on the job, contact KLG for a free consultation.