As a general rule, an injured worker is entitled to benefits under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act when he or she is disabled as the result of a work injury. A spouse or dependent of an injured worker is usually entitled to death benefits (which vary, depending on the relationships of the dependents who exist) when the injured worker dies as a result of the work injury. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. One of those exceptions is the time involved between the work injury and the injured worker’s death. In this situation, we can see a terribly unfair result.
Recently, there was an example of this situation, and its inequitable results. In Whitesell v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB), the injured worker suffered a back injury at work in 2003. Initially, the injury was accepted by the workers’ compensation insurance carrier by Notice of Compensation Payable (NCP), which described the injury as a lumbar strain and sprain. In 2006, there was litigation in which the description of injury was amended to include “lumbar disc disruption L4-L5, resulting in total disc arthroplasty at L4-L5 level.” Tragically, the injured worker died in 2011, as a result of “mixed drug toxicity,” from the medications she was taking for the work injury.
Since the death was related to the work injury, one would presume that death, or fatal claim, benefits would be available to the surviving spouse/dependents. One would be wrong. The Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, states, in Section 301(c)(1), ” . . . wherever death is mentioned as a cause for compensation under this act, it shall mean only death resulting from such injury and its resultant effects, and occurring within three hundred weeks after the injury.” Since the death here did not take place within 300 weeks of the original injury, death benefits were denied by the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ). This was affirmed by the WCAB.
Further appeal to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania was not successful. The Court did not agree with the argument that the 300 week limit should not begin until the amendment of the description of injury, since that is what led to the death (and, having taken place in 2006, was narrowly within the time limit here). The Court held that, unless the injury falls under the “Occupational Disease” category (which was not the situation here), the 300 week limit begins to run when the original injury takes place. Whether the description of injury is amended at some point is simply irrelevant. Since more than 300 weeks had passed between the 2003 injury and the 2011 death, the Court ruled that the Fatal Claim Petition must be denied.
Reasonable, logical and compassionate minds can only wonder at the reason for this limitation contained within Section 301(c)(1). This is yet another situation when inarguably an injured worker (and her family) is harmed directly by a work injury and yet has no redress. Often, the appellate Courts in Pennsylvania speak of the “humanitarian purposes” of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act; this is yet another demonstration of how hollow those words can ring.