Georgia Supreme Court Holds Employee’s Claims for Benefits are Time-Barred

Recently, the Georgia Supreme Court addressed a workers' compensation claim involving a "fictional new injury." This is an injury that takes place when an employee is hurt on the job but then continues to perform work duties until forced to stop by a worsened condition, partly due to the physical activity in continuing to work. In comparison, a "change in condition" is not caused by the continuance of work duties. In this recent appeal, the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the appellate court, which had found in favor of the injured employee.

On August 13, 1993, Willie Barnes suffered an amputated left leg below the knee in an industrial accident at the Georgia-Pacific ("GP") wood processing plant. GP and its insurer accepted the claim as catastrophic and paid temporary total disability (TTD) benefits. After being fitted for a prosthetic leg, Mr. Barnes returned to lighter duty work. The TTD benefits were replaced with permanent partial disability (PPD) benefits until May 1998.

After GP was bought by another firm, Mr. Barnes was laid off in 2009. Two years after that, Mr. Barnes received a new prosthetic limb, and the employer's insurer paid for it. In 2012, Mr. Barnes filed a claim to restart TTD benefits, asserting 1993 as the date of his injury. Later, he filed a separate claim on the ground that he was now suffering a fictional new injury. He claimed the date of the injury was the same as the date he was laid off.

The administrative law judge denied the claim on the grounds that it was time-barred by OCGA § 34-9-104(b) (two years) and § 34-9-82 (one year). The Court of Appeals reversed, finding that both of Mr. Barnes' claims were not time-barred.

The Georgia Supreme Court stated that the case rested on interpreting OCGA § 34-9-104(b), which states that a party may apply for another decision because of a change in condition provided that not more than two years have passed since the last payment of income benefits. Once an employer ends TTD payments to an employee, that employee must file a claim for additional benefits within two years of that cessation date. Here, GP ended their TTD payments to Mr. Barnes on January 30, 1994. Mr. Barnes did not file a claim to resume these benefits until over 18 years later.

The Supreme Court stated Mr. Barnes' claim was time-barred, even though he alleged that he was entitled to receive TTD benefits based on his 1993 workplace injury. Even though he may have had a right to receive TTD benefits weekly until he experienced a change in condition, to enforce that right, the court stated Mr. Barnes had to make a claim for benefits within two years of the last weekly benefit paid by his employer. Instead, he filed a claim asserting his right to resume payment of TTD benefits 16 years too late, and it was therefore barred by the two-year statute of limitations.

The court also stated that the one-year statute of limitations in OCGA § 34-9-82 barred Mr. Barnes' claim for a fictional new injury resulting from losing his job on September 11, 2009. Since no new weekly benefits were paid in connection with this alleged injury, he was required to file his claim within one year of the alleged injury, or one year of treatment. Since he received treatment on November 13, 2009 for knee pain, the time period for filing his claim extended another year to November 13, 2010. He did not file his claim until two years later.

The judgment finding that the claims were not time-barred was reversed.

If you suffered an Atlanta workplace injury, you should speak with a dedicated workers' compensation lawyer about your legal rights. To schedule a confidential consultation with a compassionate Georgia workers' compensation attorney, call the Law Offices of Nathaniel F. Hansford at (770) 922-3660 or contact us through our website.

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