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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Extends Rights of Workers with Occupational Disease

On November 22, 2013, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued a decision that enhances the fundamental right of Pennsylvania workers to be compensated for job-related illnesses.  In Tooey v. AK Steel Corp., et al., the Court reversed long-standing precedent, holding that an employee who suffers a “latent” occupational disease that does not become manifest until after 300 weeks from the employee’s last exposure to a toxic substance or other hazard in the workplace, may sue the employer for damages.

Pennsylvania’s Workers Compensation Act has an “exclusivity” provision that generally protects employers from employees’ common law claims, and restricts workers to the limited remedies provided by the Act.  However, the occupational disease provisions of the Act impose a limitations period of 300 weeks on statutory claims, with the limitations period beginning to run on the date of last exposure.  Historically, this has meant that many latent diseases have gone uncompensated, as their date of diagnosis put them outside the Act’s compensation scheme, while the Act’s exclusivity provision foreclosed them from seeking redress in Court.

In Tooey, the Court corrected this injustice.  It rejected the employer’s argument that the Act’s “coverage” [and the protection it gives employers] is broader than the “compensation” of workers.  The majority emphasized that the Act is “remedial in nature and intended to benefit the worker, and therefore, the Act must be liberally construed to effectuate its humanitarian objectives”.

It held that the Act cannot be construed as denying compensation for a workplace illness while simultaneously precluding a common law claim.

In the wake of Tooey, workers suffering from a wide variety of cancers and other chemically-induced illnesses will be able to pursue claims against the employers who are often the party most responsible for their employees exposure to toxins.  In Tooey, the Court has sealed a long-standing hole in the legal safety net for Pennsylvania workers.

Williams Cedar devotes a substantial portion of its practice to representing workers with serious illnesses caused by workplace exposure to benzene, tricholoroethylene, vinyl chloride, cutting oils, machining fluids and other toxic substances.  If you or your family member is a victim of exposure to these workplace hazards, you can have your potential case evaluated by inquiring here.

By Gerald J. Williams, Esquire