S.D. high court affirms judgment in favor of meat company

Jessica M. Karmasek Feb. 15, 2012, 1:55pm


PIERRE, S.D. (Legal Newsline) - The South Dakota Supreme Court last week found in favor of the maker of a popular line of processed meats in a workers' compensation case.

The Court, in its Feb. 8 opinion, affirmed the decision of the Minnehaha County Circuit Court.

In 2007, appellant Patrick Kendall Sr. suffered a work-related injury while being employed at John Morrell and Co.

Morrell produces fresh pork products, along with a line of processed meats, including bacon and deli meats. Its largest facility is located in Sioux Falls, S.D.

A cart rolled off a ledge at the factory, hitting Kendall's right foot and ankle.

He was later diagnosed by a doctor with a type of complex regional pain syndrome called reflex sympathetic dystrophy, involving the right leg.

Morrell had initially accepted Kendall's workers' compensation claim.

However, because he later missed a number of physical therapy and doctor appointments, the company sent him a certified letter denying all further workers' compensation benefits relating to the injury.

Almost three years later, Kendall filed a petition with the state's Department of Labor, asking for additional benefits for the injury.

The labor department granted summary judgment in favor of Morrell, concluding the man's petition was barred by the statute of limitations.

The circuit court affirmed. Kendall appealed.

According to its eight-page opinion, the state's high court said a claimant's right to workers' compensation is barred if he or she does not file a written petition for hearing within two years of the date the "self-insurer or insurer notifies the claimant and the (labor department), in writing, that it intends to deny coverage in whole or in part."

Kendall argued that his claim was not barred under the statute because the certified letter was "too ambiguous," and that the letter was "insufficient" to start running the statute of limitations because it was not based on a doctor's medical opinion that missing the appointments aggravated his condition.

"We conclude that the letter of January 2008 was not ambiguous. The letter unequivocally stated that Morrell was 'denying all further claims for worker(s') compensation benefits related to th(e) injury.'

"The letter left no doubt that Morrell was denying coverage for any additional benefits related to the October 2007 injury unless Kendall filed a petition with the Department," Justice Steven L. Zinter wrote for the Court.

The Court also concluded that a doctor's medical opinion is not necessary to start the running of the statute of limitations.

Kendall argued that even though Morrell alleged he failed to follow the reasonable medical treatment, his benefits at least should be modified -- not terminated.

"We find no merit in Kendall's arguments. We first observe SDCL 62-7-35 does not require the Department to make a modification decision under SDCL 62-4-43 before SDCL 62-7-35 (the statute of limitations) applies," Zinter wrote.

"On the contrary, SDCL 62-7-35 provides that all claims are barred unless a petition for hearing is filed within two years of the time the 'self-insurer or insurer notifies the claimant and the (D)epartment, in writing, that it intends to deny coverage in whole or in part under this title.'

"Therefore, the statute of limitations runs from the self-insurer's or insurer's written notice of intent to deny benefits, rather than from the Department's determination after hearing."

The Court said because Kendall did not file a timely petition for hearing with the labor department, he is barred from arguing that his condition is not an aggravation of his work injury caused by the failure to follow medical treatment.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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