Estate of Zeitman v. WW Osborne
January 13, 2015
CategoriesStatute of Limitations
Death Benefits Lung Cancer Multiple Employers Mistake of Fact Dunton v. Eastern Fine Paper Pino v. Maplewood Packing
Summary from the Troubh Heisler Attorneys
Mrs. Zeitman filed petitions for death benefits 20 years after her husband was diagnosed with lung cancer and 11 years after he died, claiming a “mistake of fact” led to the late filing. On the employers’ motion, Hearing Officer Collier dismissed the petitions, finding that the statute of limitations had expired. By agreement of the parties, HO Collier assumed for the purposes of the motion that Mrs. Zeitman was under a mistake of fact as to the cause and nature of her husband’s illness until just before she filed petitions. Because of her mistake of fact, 39 MRS §95 required her to file a petition “within a reasonable time.” HO Collier ruled that the “reasonable time” was measured from the date of injury, and that 20 years was not “a reasonable time.”
Mrs. Zeitman appealed, and the Appellate Division panel reversed HO Collier’s decision, remanding the case back to him for a factual hearing on the merits. The panel cited the Maine Supreme Court’s decisions in Dunton v. Eastern Fine Paper (1980) and Pino v. Maplewood Packing (1977) as support for the proposition that “it is only after the claimant is no longer under a mistake of fact that the statute of limitations begins to run and [it is only] from that point the claimant has a reasonable time to file a petition.” Accordingly, the “reasonable time” for filing the petitions should be measured from the date when the mistake of fact is corrected, and not from the date of injury. Zeitman involved 39 MRSA §95, which has since been repealed and replaced by 39-A M.R.S. §306, but even under the new statute, the result would likely be the same.
Thus, if the employee does not recognize or report a medical condition as a work injury because of a mistake of fact, the employee can file a petition within a reasonable time after he/she cures the “mistake of fact as to the cause or nature of the injury” -- a “cure” which may occur decades after the alleged injury. The WC statute of limitations for gradual injuries is obviously flexible and depends on the employee’s subjective knowledge.