Illinois Redefines Statute of Limitations for Workers' Comp

Deana Durand had been a clerical worker and policy administrator at RLI Insurance Co. in Peoria, Ill., for seven years when she started to feel pain and numbness in her hands in September 1997. She informed her supervisor a few months later that she thought the pain might be related to her work, which involved typing and entering data for most of her eight-hour shift each day.

However, because the discomfort wasn't too bad at the time, Durand kept working. But by August 2000, the pain had worsened severely--Durand was experiencing pains in her hands and wrists that shot up her arms to her elbows as she worked and constant tingling and numbness in her fingers and hands. At this point, Durand decided to see a doctor, who diagnosed her with carpal tunnel syndrome that he deemed "very work related." A specialist determined Durand needed surgery.

She then filed a workers compensation claim. Because she had worked consistently until the pain was too severe to bear, Durand thought she would have no problem getting the compensation to help her through surgery and recovery before she could return to work.

Durand was wrong. When the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission evaluated her claim, it found Durand had waited too long to file and was ineligible to seek workers' compensation. Her case touched off a debate that found its way to the state Supreme Court. The court's Oct. 19 decision in Durand's favor will dramatically change the way Illinois courts evaluate the statute of limitations for worker's comp claims, as well as the way employers administrate workers compensation.

"This decision gives injured employees the benefit of the doubt," says Patrick Jennetten, the attorney at the Peoria-based Janssen Law Center who represented Durand. "The court rejected the Commission's extreme approach that says the statute started running as soon as Deana Durand felt any pain."

Time Warp

At the heart of Industrial Commission and RLI Insurance Co. v. Durand is the question of when the statute of limitations on Durand's claim began running. The Illinois workers compensation statute gives an employee three years from the time of the work-related accident to file a claim.

The Supreme Court found that the three years didn't begin to run until August 2000, when Durand first sought medical treatment and received a diagnosis of work-related carpal tunnel. This is a significant departure from the way Illinois courts previously dealt with workers' comp disputes. Prior to the ruling, the long-established standard was that the statute begins to run when a "reasonable employee should have known that he had an injury related to work."

The fact that Durand told her supervisor more than three years before filing a claim that she was experiencing hand pain possibly related to typing would have been dispositive of the issue under the old standard. But when Durand appealed the commission's decision, she raised concerns that the old rule did not contemplate the realities of the modern workplace, where injuries are less likely to be as cut-and-dry as falling off a ladder while stocking a shelf, and more likely to develop slowly over time like carpal tunnel syndrome.

"[The old test] required employees to file claims before they could prove them," Jennetten says. "It forced an employee to file a claim at the first sign of pain that he or she thought could possibly be related to work."

Ultimately, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed that it had to address this concern and broaden the factors it considers when determining when the statute was tolled.

"Simply because an employee's work-related injury is gradual rather than sudden and completely disabling should not preclude protection and benefits," wrote Judge Thomas R. Fitzgerald for the majority. "We decline to penalize an employee who diligently worked through progressive pain until it affected her ability to work and required medical treatment."

Diagnostic Test

The new standard the Supreme Court set out doesn't completely upend the "reasonable employee" test, but does give the courts below some new signposts to look at when determining the date of the injury.

Specifically, the court said the Workers' Compensation Commission and the lower courts should look closely at the date on which the employee first sought medical treatment or received a diagnosis for the claimed injury as a determining factor for when the statute of limitations began to run.

However, the court noted that standard applies primarily to injuries that develop slowly over time due to repetitive motions. If the injury results from a discrete event--such as a fall from a ladder or a muscle strain from lifting a box--the courts will still start the statute running at the time of the accident.

"In the absence of strong evidence that the work related injury would have been plainly apparent to a reasonable person at an earlier date, the court is going to focus on the date of medical treatment and a medical diagnosis," says Ken Jenero, a partner in the labor and employment practice at Holland & Knight in Chicago.

While that means that many employees will get a longer timeframe for filing a workers' comp claim, Durand is not all bad news for employers.

"The decision does quite a bit to clarify what the proper analysis is for determining the date of the accident," Jenero says. "One could never be certain what result you would get under the old test. I think this is beneficial for all parties."

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