NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee's Supreme Court decided Wednesday that a trial court erred in ruling that a worker had passed the statute of limitations to make a Workers' Compensation claim and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Justice Janice Holder delivered the opinion.
"We now hold that the better-reasoned view is that the date of an employee's gradually occurring injury should be determined using the last-day-worked rule," Holder said.
Melvin Britt says he was injured in 1997 while working for Building Materials Corp., doing business as GAF Materials Corp., but he did not file a Workers' Compensation claim until Feb. 2002.
When the injury first occurred Britt told GAF that he had sustained a work-related back injury in March 1997, and GAF approved medical treatment for his pain. He was treated for acute lumbar strain and his condition improved following "conservative treatment" and did not miss time from work.
A few years later, though, Britt said his pain became worse and he ultimately filed for permanent partial disability benefits.
A judge in Davidson Chancery Court agreed with GAF that Britt had missed his window to file a complaint, but the Supreme Court says the rule that should be in effect considers the last day Britt worked, not the first day he complained of pain.
Britt was found to have a herniated disc that required surgery in 2004. The Special Workers' Compensation Appeals Panel determined the injury was a gradual injury and that it was not barred by the one-year statute of limitations, reversing the trial court's judgment. The Supreme Court granted review.
"The last-day-worked rule therefore prevents workers with gradually occurring injuries from losing the opportunity to bring Workers' Compensation claims due to the running of the statute of limitations," Holder wrote. "Britt argues that because his back injury is a gradually occurring injury, the statute of limitations commences on the first day he missed work due to his injury."
And that day falls within one year of filing his complaint.
"Finally, we note that the trial court granted the motion for involuntary dismissal prior to the close of Britt's proof and did not make alternative findings regarding the relief to which Britt is entitled," Holder wrote. "An involuntary dismissal at the close of the plaintiff's proof in a Workers' Compensation case is seldom appropriate."