Georgia Appeals Court Holds Workers’ Compensation Claim is Time Barred

file7021332343844 morguefile LilJoel.jpgThe Georgia Court of Appeals has affirmed an administrative law judge’s (“ALJ”) decision stating a man’s workers’ compensation benefits claim was time barred. In Lane v. Williams Plant Services, a man apparently suffered a back injury at work and began receiving workers’ compensation payments from his employer in 2008. About two years later, the man’s employer reportedly suspended his benefits. In March 2010, the man asked an ALJ to order his employer to recommence his benefit payments. After stating the evidence offered to demonstrate the benefit payments should begin again was insufficient, the ALJ recommended that an evidentiary hearing be held. Instead, the injured worker did nothing for nearly two years.

In March 2012, the man requested a hearing regarding the payment of certain medical expenses he incurred in April 2010 and reinstating his workers’ compensation benefits. After the man’s hearing, the ALJ determined that the man’s benefits claim was barred by the two-year statute of limitations included in OCGA § 34-9-104(b). In general, a statute of limitations is the period of time during which an injured person such as a worker may file a claim for damages or other compensation. In the workers’ compensation context, an employee who fails to file a workplace injury claim within the prescribed time frame will be permanently barred from collecting financial benefits.

According to the ALJ, the worker’s claim was filed too late because the statute of limitations began to run when the man’s last benefit payment was mailed to him. The ALJ also stated the man’s notice for a hearing was submitted beyond the statute of limitations, even if it began to run on the actual date of the benefit suspension. Despite this, the ALJ ruled that the man’s employer was responsible for payment of his April 2010 medical expenses because a worker may receive treatment from any physician he or she chooses.

The worker appealed the ALJ’s holding with regard to his benefit payments, and his employer cross-appealed over the man’s medical bills. Although the Appellate Division of the State Board of Worker’s Compensation upheld the ALJ’s ruling on the man’s benefits claim, it overturned his order that the man’s medical expenses be paid by his employer. According to the Appellate Division, the employer was not responsible for the medical bills because the man unilaterally changed healthcare providers even though his employer and his authorized doctor did not terminate care. A Superior Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s holding, and the worker filed an appeal with the Georgia Court of Appeals.

First, the appellate court dismissed the man’s argument that his benefits claim was not time barred. According to the appeals court, a Georgia court must defer to an agency’s statutory interpretation as long as it is reasonable and does not contradict legislative intent. The court held that it would defer to the ALJ’s decision regarding when the statute of limitations began to run because it was reasonable. Additionally, the Court of Appeals disagreed with the man’s claim that Georgia case law required the ALJ to calculate when the statute of limitations began to run differently.

Next, the Georgia appellate court held that the man failed to provide sufficient evidence to support his assertion that his March 2010 motion should have been treated as a timely request under OCGA § 34-9-104(b). The court stated the burden of providing a sufficient record for appellate review is on the party alleging an error was made. Since there was no evidence to support the man’s argument that his benefits claim was not time barred, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the ALJ’s decision on this issue.

Finally, the appeals court addressed the worker’s claim that his employer was responsible for his medical expenses under Georgia law. According to the court, the Appellate Division relied upon incomplete evidence when it determined the man’s employer was not responsible for his medical bills. In addition, the court found that both the ALJ and the Appellate Division failed to consider whether the medical treatment at issue was related to the man’s workplace injury. Since it was unclear from the record whether the man’s medical expenses were related to his workplace harm, the Georgia Court of Appeals remanded the case for further proceedings on the issue of the man’s April 2010 healthcare expenses.

Successfully navigating Georgia’s workers’ compensation laws can be tough. If you were seriously injured in a workplace accident, a knowledgeable Atlanta workers’ compensation attorney may be able to help. To discuss your rights with a caring Conyers workers’ compensation lawyer, call the Law Offices of Nathaniel F. Hansford at (770) 922-3660 or contact us online today.

Additional Resources:

Lane v. Williams Plant Services, Ga: Court of Appeals 2014

Photo credit: LilJoel, MorgueFile

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