Business Workshop: Workers have new right to sue

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Workers with latent work-related diseases may have a new way to seek compensation from their employers because of a recent landmark ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Workers can typically not file a civil lawsuit against former employers for compensation for work-related injuries and illnesses. Instead, they must file a claim under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act. The Act limits employees to filing claims within 300 weeks, or approximately six years, of their last day of employment in the hazardous job.

But some diseases related to occupational hazards take many years or even decades to develop, such as mesothelioma, leukemia, multiple myeloma and other diseases. In the case that prompted the court’s ruling, two workers died from mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos decades earlier during their work in industrial jobs.

Because the workers’ diseases developed outside of the 300-week limit, the workers’ families argued that the Act did not apply. Thus, they contended they should be allowed to pursue a civil lawsuit against the employers. Otherwise, they would have no legal recourse for harm possibly caused by an employer’s negligent acts. The employers, however, said that the 300-week exclusion was absolute and as such they were shielded from civil lawsuits

The high court sided with the workers’ families, noting that it would be fundamentally unfair to leave employees suffering from latent diseases with no legal remedy.

The ruling opens up employers to the possibility of civil lawsuits for workers’ occupational diseases that start to show symptom after the 300-week limit.

The Supreme Court clarified that such lawsuits would be subject to the normal rules of the civil justice system, including placing the burden of proof on the employee.

— Robert F. Daley, Robert Peirce & Associates, bdaley@peircelaw.com

Business workshop is a weekly feature from local experts offering tidbits on matters affecting business. To contribute, contact Business Editor Brian Hyslop at bhyslop@post-gazette.com.


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