Tennessee Court Rules on Workers’ Comp Statute of Limitations in Stress Case

A worker who witnessed the deaths of two co-workers but did not file a post-traumatic stress disorder claim until more than a year after the second death is still entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, the Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled.

The court ruled that worker’s claim did not violate the state’s one-year statute of limitations because it was filed a year after his PTSD diagnosis, which was not made until two months after he witnessed the second death.

The statute of limitations requires an injured employee to file suit within one year of “the accident resulting in injury.”

The case is Gerdau Ameristeel Inc. v. Steven Ratliff and the opinion was written by Justice Janice M. Holder.

Gerdau Ameristeel Inc., a metal recycling company, employed Steven Ratliff as a melt shop attendant. Ratliff viewed the bodies of co-workers who had died as a result of work accidents on two separate occasions in February and April 2008.

Several months later, on June 23, 2008, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the two incidents. Exactly one year later, on June 23, 2009, he filed a benefit request.

Ameristeel filed a motion for summary judgment contending that the statute of limitations commenced on the date of the second workplace accident in April 2008, and that the claim was therefore barred.

But Ratliff contended that the statute did not begin to run until the date of his diagnosis on June 23, 2008, and that his benefit request that was filed exactly one year later was timely.

The trial court agreed with the employer. In granting Ameristeel’s summary judgment, the trial court concluded that the statute of limitations began to run on April 4, 2008, the date of the second co-worker’s death, and that Ratliff’s claim was therefore barred by state law.

Ratliff appealed. The state’s high court has now reversed the trial court and sided with the employee, who has been awarded permanent partial disability benefits of 20 percent to the body as a whole.

Prior to Jan. 1, 2005, two statutes of limitations governed Tennessee’s workers’ compensation law, a situation that sometimes resulted in conflicting decisions.

However the General Assembly amended state law in 2004. The statute of limitations in Tennessee Code Annotated section 50-6-203 requiring the injured employee to file suit within one year of “the accident resulting in injury” is now the only statute of limitations governing claims for workers’ compensation benefits in Tennessee for injuries arising on or after Jan. 1, 2005.

The court has previously held that a statute of limitations “does not expire before the plaintiff discovers a claim.” It has also said that a cause of action in a workers’ compensation case “does not accrue until the plaintiff discovers the injury that is the basis for the claim.”

Ratliff filed his request for a benefit review conference more than one year after the second co-worker’s death on April 4, 2008. While Ratliff experienced symptoms of PTSD before June 23, 2008. Ratliff’s doctor testified that Ratliff was “clinically diagnosable” for PTSD on that date.

The statute of limitations commences to run “at that time when the employee, by a reasonable exercise of diligence and care, would have discovered that a compensable injury had been sustained,” the court said.

The high court concluded that the limitations period “did not commence until Ratliff was diagnosed as having PTSD on June 23, 2008, and that the statute of limitations therefore does not bar Ratliff’s claim.”

Workers’ compensation cases in Tennessee are expedited by giving them priority over all cases on the trial and appellate dockets. Accordingly, trial courts typically make findings of fact and rule on the merits even when cases such as this one are resolved on a procedural basis. If, on appeal, the trial court’s judgment is not affirmed, alternative rulings provide the high with a basis on which to review the case on its merits.

Whether a plaintiff has exercised “reasonable diligence and care” in discovering that he has a cause of action is a question of fact.

The trial court heard Ratliff’s case on the merits and weighed the facts and made alternative findings. It found that Ratliff could not have reasonably known or discovered that his PTSD symptoms were related to work activities until his diagnosis on June 23, 2008. It found that in the event the statute of limitations does not begin to run until an employee discovers the injury, Ratliff could not have reasonably known or discovered that he suffered from PTSD until June 23, 2008, and that his claim was not barred. The trial court also determined that Ratliff sustained a permanent partial disability of 20 percent to the body as a whole.

The high court adopted the alternative findings of the trial court, which Ameristeel had not disputed in its appeal.