Washington Workers Compensation Law: What you Need to Know
You can think of Washington Workers’ Compensation claims in as a journey marked by time-based milestones. These take the form of necessary steps that as an injured or ill employee you must take: notifying your employer of what happened to you, going through diagnostic medical examinations, and receiving medical treatment, filing the claim with the Department of Labor and Industries, and if necessary appealing its decision.
What is a Statute of Limitation? Why Should I Care?
The way we measure the timing of legal milestones, Workers’ Compensation-related or otherwise, is through statutes of limitation: laws that establish the period of time within which someone needs to act on a legal claim before he or she becomes time-barred from doing so.
Viewers of television crime dramas may be familiar with these statutes, but they go beyond simply cutting off the state’s ability to bring criminal charges. You, too, can be subject to statutes of limitation when you are thinking about making a Workers’ Compensation claim; and the penalty you might pay for missing one is the loss of your ability to do so.
Another problem you might run into with Workers’ Compensation statute of limitation is that while it may seem simple when you read it, it can be subject to different interpretations. These can lead to disputes between you and your employer, or the Department of Labor and Industries (“DLI”), or both about whether you filed your claim on time, disputes that can linger even after your claim is initially approved. If later on your claim is denied because a court holds that you missed the statute of limitation, then not only will you lose your future benefits but you may have to repay any you already received.
What is the Washington Workers’ Compensation Statute of Limitation?
We can’t make you do it, but we can make you wish you had
The first timing consideration you will encounter is not a statute of limitation, but a legal duty: you must “forthwith” notify your employer if you get into an accident on the job. The law does not impose a specific number of days within which you need to give your notice, but you should get this duty out of the way as soon as you can. Putting it off will not change the claim-filing statute of limitation, so there is no advantage in delay. Failing to give it at all would arguably be a breach of your legal duty, and would needlessly complicate filing your claim with the DLI.
Notifying your employer right away can help you to file your Workers’ Compensation claim faster. This is because once you notify the employer, then it has a duty to “at once” report the accident to the DLI (failure to do so is punishable as claim suppression). Once the DLI receives the employer’s notice, it will “immediately” provide you with written notice of your rights under Washington’s Workers’ Compensation system.
OK, I notified my employer. How much time do I have to file a Workers’ Compensation claim?
The actual statute of limitation for Workers’ Compensation claims imposes a more precise time track compared to your duty to forthwith notify your employer. Depending on the nature of your work-related illness or injury, either of two deadlines will apply to you:
- If you suffer a work-related injury, you have one year, starting on the day after the accident, to file your Workers’ Compensation claim.
- If you contract a work-related illness (an “occupational disease”), you have two years from the date on which a doctor or registered nurse notifies you in writing that you have the occupational disease and that you can file a claim for it.
Why do occupational diseases get more time than injuries?
If you are seriously injured enough on the job to be thinking about filing a Workers’ Compensation claim, chances are that you will be aware of your injury when it happens or shortly thereafter.
Occupational diseases, on the other hand, sometimes do not manifest themselves through symptoms for months or even years after the underlying cause becomes known. Prolonged exposure to hazardous materials that eventually leads to a respiratory condition, or repetitive stress injuries are two examples of how this delayed effect can happen. Note also that the two-year statute of limitations for occupational diseases treats hearing loss as a special case: instead of starting the two-year claim filing period when you are diagnosed with this condition, it begins on the date of your last exposure to whatever is causing it.
What constitutes ‘filing a claim?’
Filing your Workers’ Compensation claim by mail used to be common, and at least one Washington court decision turned on the question of whether the act of mailing the claim satisfied the “filing” requirement (it did not). Today, the DLI encourages filing online or by telephone; or, if your employer is self-insured, filing directly with your employer. The key thing to remember here is that the date of filing is the date on which the DLI actually receives your claim.
Even if you file by modern electronic means, waiting until the last possible day is not a good idea because if anything delays your filing you could find yourself going beyond the applicable statute of limitation period – and Washington courts have little sympathy for late-filed claims. The only way you can push beyond the time limit is if the last day to file is on a weekend day or a state-recognized holiday, in which case the last day gets bumped to the next business day.
Lastly, it is your responsibility to file your Workers’ Compensation claim. Even though the law requires the doctor or registered nurse who diagnosed you with the illness or injury to provide you with “all necessary assistance” in preparing your claim, getting the claim in on time is still up to you even if they fail in this obligation.
What Other Statute of Limitation Issues Exist for Workers’ Compensation Claims?
Later-developing medical problems
Not all work-related injuries and illnesses can be neatly isolated as single events. What happens, for example, if you experience one occupational disease but later on – past the two-year statute of limitation – another appears, based on the same circumstances that led to your initial claim? Are you precluded from seeking Workers’ Compensation benefits for this later-arising illness? Not necessarily: Washington law allows for re-opening a settled claim “within seven years from the date the first closing order becomes final.”
A major objective of Workers’ Compensation is to eliminate the need for you to file a lawsuit against your employer if you are injured or have an occupational disease. But this policy might not preclude you from having a separate legal claim that you can pursue in addition to a Workers’ Compensation claim. Particularly with on-the-job injuries, the cause of injury can sometimes involve others who have little or no connection with your employment, or even intentional wrongful behavior on the part of someone else you work with. Consider the following situations:
- You are a delivery driver, and a negligent motorist collides with your delivery vehicle while you are on the job, causing injury to you.
- You are using a tool, vehicle or other item of equipment as part of your work, and it turns out to be defective, leading at least in part to your injury.
- Your employer, a co-worker, or a non-employee physically assaults you while at work, injuring you in the process.
In each of these cases, you might have an independent, tort-based legal claim for compensation, with its own statute of limitation distinct from the Workers’ Compensation limitation.
Availability of other benefits
If your injury or occupational disease is serious enough to lead to a disability that limits or prevents your ability to return to work, you may have one or more other sources of government benefits that you can apply for (for example, Veterans’ benefits or Social Security disability benefits). These have their own claim procedures and deadlines that you will need to take into account separately from the Workers’ Compensation statute of limitation.
Should You Hire an Attorney to Help You with Filing Your Claim?
You can file your own Workers’ Compensation claim; an attorney is not required. But it should be clear by now that not all such claims are equal. Serious injuries, or claims arising from the actions of third parties, or complex situations involving later-developing injuries or illnesses can all affect which statutes of limitation apply to your case. If you miss an applicable legal deadline, you may permanently lose part or all of your potential Workers’ Compensation, civil liability lawsuit or other disability claim.
Having a Workers’ Compensation attorney as your advocate during the claim filing process is a good insurance policy against the possibility of you inadvertently missing a statute of limitation-based cutoff date or failing to recognize other, complementary avenues for compensation. In this important sense, any money you spend on professional legal assistance can be more of an investment than a cost to you.
This article presents an overview of how the Washington Workers’ Compensation statute of limitations works. It is not exhaustive in its treatment of the subject, and you should not rely on what you read here as legal advice. If you have any questions about when you should file your claim, consulting with an attorney is a sound way to preserve your rights.