Patrick v. Wal-Mart Sheds Light on Statutes of Limitations Impact on Alabama’s Workers’ Compensation

North Carolina Workers’ Compensation was created in order to protect people who suffer injuries related to their job duties. However, as in all legal aspects, there is a statute of limitations for how long you have to bring or appeal a workers’ compensation claim. If you do not bring your claim in time, you may lose your rights to the benefits you have worked for.
Our experienced Charlotte workers’ compensation attorneys understand that the process can be complicated, and we can help you get piece of mind.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently heard a case dealing with the questions surrounding statute of limitations in workers’ compensation (WC) cases. Patrick v. Wal-mart, No. 11-60217 (5th Cir. May 17, 2012). The facts of this case begin with Teresa Patrick (Plaintiff) working for a Wal-Mart store in Mississippi. Patrick’s work included stocking shelves at the Wal-Mart store. In July of 1997, plaintiff was stocking shelves when she suffered a lower back injury.

Wal-Mart had workers’ compensation coverage through National Union Fire Insurance Company (National). Plaintiff promptly filed a WC claim with National for the injuries she sustained while stocking the shelves at the defendants store. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who heard the evidence in the case, found that the plaintiff’s injury was considered compensable and that she was entitled to temporary total disability benefits. This ALJ found that the question of permanency of the injury was to be determined at a later time.

Temporary benefits are available in many states and last for a maximum of four hundred and fifty weeks. The only way that permanent disability is awarded for a work-related injury is where the employee’s work related injury has caused her to lose “wage earning capacity.”

Although Wal-Mart and National (collectively, defendant’s) disagreed with this ALJ decision, in 1999 they paid the plaintiff the lump sum of the benefits she was awarded by the ALJ for eleven months.

It was not until 2005 that the plaintiff brought an additional claim for additional injuries she has suffered since the 1999 benefit payment. Although the plaintiff had worked at other places and her back injury had gotten worse, she claimed that she was entitled to additional benefits. After over five years, the ALJ re-heard the case and awarded the plaintiff permanent disability and the reasonable and necessary medical expenses incurred because of the plaintiff’s injury she sustained while working at Wal-mart.

The defendants continued to appeal this ALS’s decision arguing that the plaintiffs second suit arose too late after the initial 1998 ALJ decision, thus it was barred by the state’s three year statute of limitations.

In this case, the relevant state law dictates that an ALJ’s decision becomes final within twenty days, where there is no appeal submitted.

A critical piece to this case surrounded the type of decision rendered by the ALJ in 1998, whether final or interlocutory. When a court order is entered although there remain substantial rights undetermined, this is considered interlocutory. These types of decisions are made to allow for later court action and decision-making. Thus, this court was led to interpretation of the state statute.

This court found that it would be inconsistent with WC basic precepts to find that all benefits must be awarded before the statute of limitations clock begins to run. Thus, the ALJ’s 1999 decision was considered final, regardless of whether it was interlocutory in the fact that there were still benefits to be considered. Thus, the plaintiff failed to bring a timely appeal when she did not seek more damages by 2001, which is three years from the date of the initial award.

Contact the Carolina workers’ compensation attorneys at Lee Law Offices, P.A. for legal advice regarding your case and your rights. We are a dedicated law firm that is here to help to protect the rights of injured workers and their families. Call today to schedule a free and confidential appointment. Call 1-800-887-1965.

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