Occupational diseases that occur more than four years following an employee’s last exposure to the hazard causing the disease do not fall under the exclusivity mandate of the Workers’ Compensation Act.
Because of that finding, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania said that the estate of an employee who died from mesothelioma due to workplace exposure to asbestos could move forward with a lawsuit against his former employer.
Diagnosed 15 years after last exposure to asbestos
William Herold was employed as a stationary engineer by the University of Pittsburgh from 1976 until he retired in 2015.
During his employment, Herold was exposed to asbestos until 2004. In April 2019, approximately 15 years after his last exposure to asbestos, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer in the lining of the lung.
Expert evidence attributed the cause of Herold’s mesothelioma to his workplace asbestos exposures.
Trial court denies employer’s summary judgment request
In October 2019, Herold filed a lawsuit in a Pennsylvania trial court to recover damages from his occupational disease. Herold died before the case could resolve with his estate continuing the litigation.
The university requested summary judgment in its favor in January 2021 based on the exclusivity provisions of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA) and the Occupational Disease Act (ODA).
The trial court denied the request for summary judgment, finding that:
- the ODA defines an occupational disease as one that occurs within four years of last exposure to the hazards of such disease
- Herold’s last exposure to asbestos occurred 15 years prior to his diagnosis, far longer than the four-year limitations period defined in the ODA, and
- an ODA “savings clause,” which provides additional relief beyond the four-year period for certain diseases, was inapplicable in this case.
For these reasons, the trial court found the ODA didn’t apply in Herold’s case, meaning he could pursue his lawsuit against the university.
The university filed an appeal with the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, arguing that the trial court erred in finding the ODA didn’t apply.
‘An obvious flaw in the system’
On appeal, the court acknowledged that the ODA is “an integral part of a comprehensive, no-fault system of compensation for employees that suffer disability or death in the course of their employment.”
However, the court also noted that with diseases like mesothelioma, which can take decades to manifest, there is an obvious flaw in the workers’ compensation system. It pointed to the fact that the state’s Supreme Court concluded in prior cases that the exclusivity provisions didn’t apply to latent occupational diseases that manifested more than 300 weeks after the last occupational exposure.
The court stated that it recognizes an exception to the exclusivity provisions in claims asserted by an employee more than four years after that employee’s last workplace exposure to the hazards that caused the disease, meaning Herold’s estate could move forward with its lawsuit.