Is There Really a Statute of Limitations?
A statute is a law that must be interpreted by the courts, first by its plain meaning, and if unclear, by other methods including looking to the legislative intent and its relation to other existing statutes. What are not always evident are the exceptions to the statute, which may be found in separate statutes or case law. There are so many exceptions to the statute of limitations, I now refer to it as the “suggestion of limitations.”
Labor Code section 5402 states that proceedings may be commenced for the collection of benefits within one year of the date of: (1) injury; (2) the expiration of any period covered by payment under Article 3 (medical treatment); or (3) the last date on which any benefits provided for in Article 2 (indemnity) were furnished.
In cases involving cumulative trauma or occupational disease, the date of injury is the date upon which the employee first suffers disability and either knew or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known that the disability was caused by employment. (Labor Code section 5412.)
Payment of compensation in the form of medical treatment can potentially include any medical treatment for which the employer is liable that relates to the injury to be adjudicated, even if the employer did not actually pay for the treatment (when an injured worker treats on a lien basis). It is unknown whether a court would find a payment issued years after the treatment was actually provided would toll the statute. However, providing medical treatment for a subsequent injury does not toll the statute of limitations.
In Industrial Indem. Exchange v. IAC (1947) 80 Cal.App.2d 480, it was held that benefits an applicant received in another state, when an employer in California is given a credit for that compensation, will result in the last installment received from the other state being treated as “payment” tolling the statute of limitations.
Employers can be prevented from asserting the statute of limitations as a defense if they have taken any action or inaction that dissuades the employee from filing a workers’ compensation claim, including privately paying for medical treatment and lost wages. Injured workers filing late Applications for Adjudication of Claim have given excuses such as: “My boss gets really mad when someone gets hurt at work”, “I thought I would get fired”, and “I was told that my injury wasn’t covered under workers’ compensation”, all which could potentially prevent a statute of limitations defense.
Employers will be prevented from asserting the statute of limitations as a defense if the applicant was not given the proper notices advising him of his right to obtain workers’ compensation benefits and the statute of limitations as required by law. (Reynolds v. WCAB (1974) 12 Cal.3d 726).
The statute of limitations can also be waived by an employer by stipulation, failure to raise it as a defense prior to final adjudication of a claim, or by voluntary waiver.
In cases where an applicant suffers an accepted industrial injury with benefits provided and the Application for Adjudication of claim is filed outside the time periods specified in Labor Code section 5402, the court can treat an Application as a petition for new and further disability under Labor Code section 5410, as long as it is filed within five years of the date of injury. In those cases, the employer is likely to be liable for all of the applicant’s medical treatment, but can potentially defend against liability for indemnity for permanent disability that existed at the time the applicant stopped treating.
Please note: this article does not contain all of the exceptions and refers only to the statute of limitations for commencement of proceeding for the collection of benefits caused by an industrial injury. Additional laws apply to other benefits including but not limited to: death, 132(a), serious and wilful misconduct, rehabilitation benefits, or for employees who are minors or incompetents.