Generally speaking, an injured worker in PA can ask a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) to review an accepted description of a work injury “at any time” (within the statute of limitations, of course) to amend those conditions for which the workers’ compensation insurance carrier should be responsible. In other words, usually, an injured worker, under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, can try to add more injuries to an accepted workers’ compensation case.
However, a recent decision by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania put a significant hurdle in the path of an injured worker. On November 25, 2008, the Court decided Weney v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Mac Sprinkler Systems, Inc.).
In this case, the workers’ comp insurance company accepted a “left shoulder strain.” The injured worker filed a Petition to Review, to add a tear of the anterior labrum with large glenohumeral joint effusion, tendonitis or a partial tear of the supraspinatus/infraspinatus, minimal impingement, and biceps tenosynovitis, all in the left shoulder. The workers’ compensation insurance carrier agreed, and the parties executed a stipulation, providing that the work injury now included this more descriptive injury.
Mr. Weney then filed another Petition to Review, this time to add herniated discs in his cervical spine to the work injury. Since the records showed that Mr. Weney had neck problems at the time he was litigating the first Review Petition, the Court held that he was barred from litigating this second Review Petition.
This concept is called “technical res judicata” or “claim preclusion.” It happens when an identical issue, between identical parties, has already been decided. The troubling aspect of this case for us, as attorneys representing the injured worker, is that the neck problem was never litigated, or decided, in the first Review Petition. And, frankly, there was no reason to address the neck at that point, since the workers’ comp insurance carrier was agreeing to the left shoulder problem, and that problem was the immediate concern of Mr. Weney at that time.
The Court took pains to observe that technical res judicata applies to those claims actually litigated, as well as those that should have been litigated. This is a dangerous precedent, as it may mean that when we file a Petition to Review for a client, we may have to litigate every single condition which may be related to the work injury, or risk being barred from doing so in later litigation. Ultimately, it seems this will increase the complexity of litigating a Review Petition, which will just cause more of a strain on the workers’ compensation judicial system.