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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.