The best defense against an occupational disease claim is often the statute of limitations. That is how the employer won in Mara v. United Parcel Service, A-3691-15T4 (App. Div. August 4, 2017).
The case involved a package car driver named Craig Mara who began working for UPS in 1983. He filed a claim petition in 2011 contending that his bilateral knee replacement surgery in 2010 was caused by decades of physical stressors on the job. He argued that he did not realize his knee condition was work related until after he had his surgery, and since he filed within two years of the surgery date, he argued that his filing was timely.
UPS countered with evidence that Mara knew his condition was related to his work in 2006. Mara had long-standing knee problems, including prior left knee surgery 10 years before he testified. His personal chiropractor, Dr. Ruth, had been treating Mara for knee pain since 2003 and told him that his condition was work related in 2006. He admitted in his testimony that he revealed to Dr. Ruth that driving at work and moving around at work caused him knee pain. He also told Dr. Ruth that his right knee was hurting due to work activities.
The Judge of Compensation found that petitioner's claim was not timely filed, and the Appellate Division affirmed. The Court said, “Considerably more than two years prior to his 2011 petition, Mara was well aware that the problems in both his knees were work-related. Long before the 2010 knee replacements, the problem with at least one knee was sufficiently severe as to require surgery to repair a torn meniscus.”
The Court also rejected petitioner's alternative argument that his employer lulled him into believing that his knee condition was work related by having the surgery paid for by employer sponsored health insurance. The Judge of Compensation correctly pointed out that the employer's health insurance was separate and distinct from its workers' compensation policy.
The case makes sense because it directly falls within the language of N.J.S.A. 34:15-34, which requires that a compensation petition must be filed “within 2 years after the date on which the claimant first knew the nature of the disability and its relation to the employment.” The defense was able to show both elements: that the petitioner knew the nature of his disability and thought the condition was work related. UPS was able to prove the defense through prior medical records, particularly prior chiropractic records. It is absolutely essential in occupational orthopedic claims that employers obtain prior chiropractic, family doctor and prior orthopedic treatment records because those records often build the entire defense to the claim, just as in this matter.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John H. Geaney, an executive committee member and shareholder with Capehart Scatchard, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers' Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates. To visit his New Jersey Workers' Comp Blog, click here.
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