Firm News

Statute of Limitations in Occupationals – Two Years From When the Employee ‘Knew of the Disability and Relation to the Employment’

Suzanne Huntoon began working as a clerk-typist for a police department in 1994. In 1998 she began experiencing tingling and numbness in her right hand. In July of 1998 her primary care physician told her that the condition was “probably work related because of the typing her job required.”

In 2001 Huntoon saw a new family doctor, still complaining of pain and numbness in her right hand. The new doctor diagnosed her as suffering from “right carpal tunnel syndrome” and prescribed a wrist brace.

In 2003 Hunoon returned to her doctor, complaining about pain an dumbness in the right hand that would not go away. Once again, she was diagnosed with “carpal tunnel syndrome right keyboard use.” Huntoon was referred to a hand surgeon, although she did not make an appointment or follow up on the referral.

On two more occasions Huntoon sought care for her right wrist – again in 2003 and in 2004. She underwent an EMG/Nerve Conduction Velocity test which confirmed a ‘severe degree’ of carpal tunnel syndrome in the right hand.

In 2007 Huntoon filed a claim petition alleging that she sustained injuries arising from an occupational exposure (“repetitive motion”). The employer filed an answering pleading denying the compensability of the hand injuries.

Trial began in March 2009. During her testimony, the claimant recounted her treatment course (essentially as described above). After trial, the judge of compensation dismissed Huntoon’s case – citing the law that requires an employee to file claims for work-related injuries within two years of learning of the condition’s relationship to employment. This ‘two year’ time limit for filing claims is referred to as the ‘Statute of Limitations.’

N.J.S.A. 34:15-34 requires that “where a claimant knew the nature of the disability and its relation to the employment” all claims for compensation for compensable occupational disease must be filed within two years after that date.

When an employee suffers and accident but neglects to file a claim petition within the two years, his claim is barred by the statute of limitations.

In the Huntoon case, the judge of compensation found that at the very latest, the claimant knew she had work-related carpal tunnel in 2004, when she underwent testing (EMG/NCS) for the condition.

The claimant appealed the dismissal ruling. On July 28, 2010 the reviewing court (New Jersey Appellate Court) affirmed the dismissal.

This is a great case for the defense! The Appellate Judges rejected the petitioner’s argument that the Statute of Limitations did not start running until the date of her last exposure.

The Huntoon case demonstrates the value of a thorough investigation into the prior medical history of the claimant. By obtaining the claimant’s lengthy prior medical history, which included the nine-year-old diagnoses of carpal tunnel, the employer was able to show the court that the claimant was well-aware of her allegedly-occupational condition long before she claimed it was work related.

Case: Huntoon v. Borough of Clementon, A-956-09T3 (App. Div. decided July 28, 2010).

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