If an Arkansan gets sick because of a workplace injury inflicted more than three years before, he does not have a right to sue for any workers' compensation benefits, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a split opinion.
In the majority opinion, Justice Courtney Goodson said the court had no choice but to follow the law, which sets a three-year limit between exposure and injury.
"In conclusion, the remedy afforded by the Act certainly rings hollow under the facts of this case. The result smacks of unfairness, particularly when it is well known that the disease of mesothelioma has a long latency period," she wrote. "However, our General Assembly has seen fit to create a statute of repose with only a three-year duration."
If there's a problem with the law, it "lies at the feet of the General Assembly" and it's up to lawmakers to change it, she wrote.
But in a dissent, Justice Paul Danielson said the three-year limit did not constitute a statute of limitation.
"One cannot wait too long to assert a cause of action one does not know about," he said. "I do not buy into the majority's conclusion that lack of knowledge of a claimant's disease can be held against the claimant to take away his or her right to seek recovery."
The high court split 4-3 on the ruling, which attracted attention from various interest groups throughout Arkansas. The state Supreme Court affirmed the findings of lower courts.
The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Arkansas argued in a brief that costs to employers would increase if workers are allowed to sue for damages years after their injuries.
The employer groups said that allowing both circuit courts and the state Workers' Compensation Commission to consider benefits and damages would defeat the purpose of the workers' compensation system.
"By the early 1990s, the state's workers' compensation system was in dire financial straits partly as the result of judicial decisions expanding the scope of ... awards," the groups said.
But the Ohio-based Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group said in a brief that no remedy is possible for a large swath of workers unless they are allowed to go to court.
When workers are exposed to asbestos, for example, their injuries are not apparent until years later, the group wrote.
It asked an appellate court to "weigh the manifest injustice afforded the citizens of Arkansas" if the decision by the lower court stands.
The high court's decision pertained to the late Guy D. Hendrix, who worked for Alcoa from 1966 until his retirement in the fall of 1995.
In June 2012, he received a diagnosis of mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer. In September 2012, Hendrix filed a claim against Alcoa for workers' compensation benefits, alleging that he was exposed to asbestos during the course of his employment.
On November 7, 2012, an administrative law judge found that the claim was barred under the provisions of Arkansas Code.
Hendrix died in November 2013. In April 2014, the estate initiated a wrongful-death and survival action against Alcoa.
The case was Brenda Hendrix, individually, and as a special administratrix of the estate of Guy D. Hendrix, deceased v. Alcoa, Inc.
Business on 12/16/2016