In regards to timely reporting of work-related injuries or conditions, the Massachusetts workers’ compensation law imposes two significant deadlines on an injured worker with respect to pursuing workers’ compensation benefits.

If you are injured at work, or have been diagnosed with a medical condition related to your work-activities, and you intend to pursue workers’ compensation benefits, the law requires that you 1) report the work-related injury or condition to your employer, or to your employer’s insurance company, “as soon as practicable after the happening thereof,” and 2) file a claim for benefits no less than 4 years from the date of the injury, or from when you knew, or should have known, that your medical condition was work related. 

But what do these requirements truly mean to the injured worker?  What does “as soon as practicable” and “should have known” mean?  Unfortunately, like most areas of the law, there is no clear answer to those questions and the answer to each is, “it depends.” 

WHAT THE JUDGE WILL CONSIDER

Whether an injured worker has given “timely” notice of an injury to their employer will be determined by the judge based on the facts and circumstances of each case.  Facts/questions that need to be considered by the judge may include: Where did the injury occur? Was the worker hospitalized or incapacitated after the accident? Were they physically able to make a phone call? If a call was made, who did they speak with? Was anything reported in writing? Is there a formal accident report? When did they first learn that their medical condition was related to their job in any way?

These examples are for illustrative purposes only and are only but a few that may be part of the judge’s consideration. The final decision as to whether an injury was timely reported will ultimately be determined by the judge on a case-by-case basis. 

WORKERS’ COMPENSATION STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS

Additionally, with limited exceptions the law also requires that you file a claim for workers’ compensation benefits with the Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents no later than 4 years from the date of the injury, or 4 years from the date when you knew, or should have known, that your medical condition was work related.  This means that if you fail to file a claim prior to the 4-year anniversary, you will be forever prohibited from doing so.  This deadline is commonly referred to as the “statute of limitations.”

In fact, most civil claims, and not just workers’ compensation claims, have an applicable statute of limitations. Statutes of limitations exist for several reasons, but they mainly exist to limit the time others may be subject to legal liability.  Also, after so many years, relevant evidence may be lost, making it harder to pursue or defend a claim. Regardless of the reasons why they exist, statutes of limitations are applicable to nearly every civil claim, including a workers’ compensation, and are strictly followed by the courts, with some exceptions.  Therefore, an understanding of the workers’ compensation statute of limitations is important.

CALCULATING THE 4-YEAR DATE CAN HARDER FOR SOME WORKERS

The requisite 4-year statute of limitations can be simple to calculate for those who suffer a significant injury at work (i.e., 4 years from a lifting injury, or slip and fall, or work-related car accident, etc.), but calculating the 4-year date can me more complicated for those workers’ who develop a medical condition over time, which they later learn is the direct result of their repetitive work activities. When did they first know it was work-related? Or worse, when should they have known the condition was work-related?

For example, take a warehouse worker who repetitively lifts and carries heavy items throughout the day.  The worker eventually develops a chronic lower back problem after several years of doing this. They finally get tired of the pain and see a doctor for the first time.  The doctor takes the person out of work and the worker files for workers’ compensation benefits. 

Is this a work-related condition which will be covered by workers’ compensation?  Perhaps, but it depends on several factors, including whether there were any prior, non-work-related injuries suffered by the worker, or, when the worker first started to experience back problems.

However, with respect to the issue of when the person knew or should have known it was a work-related back condition, the relevant questions that will need answering are: Did any doctor ever say the back condition may be work-related? Did a doctor ever say the condition was NOT work-related? Did the worker ever miss any time from work for the back condition?  Did the worker ever experience any acute back injuries at work that were never reported to their employer?

None of these factors by themselves will paint the entire picture for the judge, but the answers to many of these questions taken together will help resolve the ultimate question of when the person “knew or should have known” their condition was related to their work in any way. It is a crucial point because if the person knew in the past that the condition may have been work-related, but never reported it to their employer, they may be denied workers’ compensation benefits for that reason alone.

REPORT A WORK-RELATED INJURY OR CONDITION TO YOUR EMPLOYER AS SOON AS YOU CAN

If there is only one thing to take away from this article, let it be this: if you are injured at work, or have a medical condition that your doctor tells you may be related to your work activities, or if you have a condition that you suspect may be work-related, it is imperative that you report the condition to your employer as soon as possible.  Also, if you sustain an injury at work, no matter how trivial or minor you may think it to be, it is still always best to report all injuries as they happen.  While the reporting of an injury or condition is NOT a guarantee that you will receive workers’ compensation benefits for it, since there are other issues involved, failing to report an injury can result in a denial of the claim before even getting into those other issues.

Aside from the importance of reporting injuries for purposes of notice and statute of limitations, the timeliness of reporting an injury can also have an impact on prompt receipt of necessary medical treatment and receipt of weekly checks.  This is yet another important reason to report a work-related injury or condition to your employer as soon as you can.

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