Supreme Court Clarification in Workers' Compensation Cases

The Connecticut Supreme Court recently reached a decision on a workers' compensation appeal in which the Court further clarified how to determine the applicable statute of limitations in repetitive trauma cases.

The issue in Veilleux v. Complete Interior Systems involved a question of whether the Connecticut Workers' Compensation Commission correctly applied the law in determining that the plaintiff's repetitive trauma injury had to be treated as an "accidental injury," thus triggering a one-year period within which a claim has to be filed, as opposed to an occupational disease, where a three-year filing period applies.

The claimant/employee, Veilleux, was a carpenter who worked for defendant Complete Interior Systems for 10 years. According to court records, he installed acoustic ceilings, metal fixings and sheetrock on walls and ceilings until his employment ended in March 2002. In November 2003, he was diagnosed with cervical myelopathy and myelomancia, both degenerative disc diseases in his spine. His physician explained that these conditions were likely caused by the strain put on his spine based on years of carrying sheetrock by balancing it on his head. This was the first time he learned about his neck injury and was more than one year after he left his employment.

In March 2004, Veilleux filed a workers' compensation claim based on the injuries he sustained through "repetitive trauma to the cervical spine from frequent overhead work and frequent carrying of heavy materials on [his] head and shoulders." Complete Interior Systems moved to dismiss his claim, arguing that Veilleux's claim was time barred since such an injury to sheetrock installers was a recognized occupational disease, and that repetitive trauma injuries, like accidental injuries, are subject to a one-year statute of limitations for the filing of a claim. The trial commissioner found for the defendant and dismissed the claim. He reasoned that since Veilleux did not submit evidence proving that his injuries were the result of an occupational disease, the one-year filing limitation for accidental injuries actually applied. Thus, the trial commissioner ruled that the claim was barred under the one-year statute of limitations.

Veilleux appealed to the Workers' Compensation Review Board, claiming that the commissioner erred in not following the reasoning set forth in Discuillo v. Stone & Webster because the trial commissioner failed to decide whether the repetitive trauma injury more closely resembled an occupational disease or an accidental injury before determining the applicable statute of limitations. The Review Board affirmed the trial commissioner's decision, in dismissing the case and Veilleux appealed once again.

In deciding Veilleux, the Connecticut Supreme Court revisited its analysis in Discuillo, which involved a painter who carried heavy equipment and paint throughout his tenure with his employer. He suffered a heart attack while on the job, but did not learn that his symptoms were work related until two years later.

In the Veilleux case, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that it was not necessarily true that all repetitive trauma claims have a one-year filing limitation. The Court said that if a repetitive trauma injury more closely resembles an occupational disease than it does an accidental injury, then an injured worker has three years within which to file his repetitive trauma claim.

The Connecticut Supreme Court also said that the Compensation Review Board erred in ruling that an injured worker has to prove that his injury is "unique" to his job in order to prove that it resembles an occupational disease. The Court confirmed that while an occupational disease must be one which is "peculiar to the occupation," it does not necessarily have to be "unique" to the occupation. Instead, "it need merely be so distinctively associated with the occupation that there is a direct causal connection between the duties of the employment and the disease contracted."

Under this framework, before a trial commissioner can determine the applicable statute of limitations for a repetitive trauma injury, he or she must in each case determine whether it more closely resembles an occupational disease or an "accidental injury".

The Supreme Court determined that the trial commissioner improperly concluded that he was not obligated to follow Discuillo and that the review board was incorrect in rejecting Veilleux's argument regarding the distinction between occupational diseases and accidental injuries. The Court reversed the previous decisions and remanded the matter directing the trial commissioner to determine whether the plaintiff's repetitive trauma injuries more closely resembled an occupational disease or an accidental injury.

If you have suffered a repetitive stress injury or any other type of occupational disease, an experienced workers' compensation lawyer can explain your right to compensation and guide you through the process.