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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

It is Time To Do The Right Thing

A recent decision by the NJ Courts illustrates the weaknesses of the present workers' compensation system when dealing with occupational exposures. The social remedial system called workers' compensation was designed before recognition of the compensability occupational illnesses. 

The initial system was to furnish benefits without fault and in a summary and remedial fashion to injured workers. For the most part, that system worked from 1911 until the 1950's when the legacy of asbestos, used in World War II to insulate ships, came back to haunt the American worker by the manifestation of latent asbestos diseases including mesothelioma, a rare and fatal cancer.

Recently a NJ court denied the compensability of an asbestos related condition based upon the claimant's own knowledge of the causal relationship of an asbestos related medical condition and his own occupational exposure. Additional the court held that medical expert testimony was not required to support a motion to dismiss for the failure to meet the requirement of the statute of limitations.

In the 1970's the US Department of Labor was concerned with the same weaknesses and unavailability of benefits. The US DOL commissioned the Environmental Sciences Center at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine under the leadership of the late Irving J. Selikoff, MD to study and analyze the problem. The weaknesses of the system, even though less dramatic than present, led to the conclusion that the workers' compensation systems just didn't work for occupational disease conditions. Additionally, costs for medical treatment of asbestos related conditions were being shifted at an estimated $10 Billion dollars, at that time, to the Medicare system.

Dr. Selikoff studied two major cohorts in analyzing the inadequacies of the  workers' compensation system. One group were insulators, and another group were 933 former plant workers at The Union Asbestos and Rubber Company of Paterson NJ who worked in war production between 1942 and 1944. Strikingly, the dormant medical conditions caused by the occupational exposure to asbestos fiber, and the latent condition of the disease for decades, caused major problems in filing claims. Those included the statute of limitation and diagnosis by medical professionals. Some professional were Grade B readers certified by The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and even those experts in the field were challenged in Court. 

The report, that was submitted to the US Congress, concluded that the failure of the workers' compensation system to provide benefits to many who were exposed to asbestos, and the inadequate benefits to others. Their low rates were based on extremely low wages at the time of exposure. For these and other reasons, the report concluded, that the workers' compensation had failed to adequately provide treatment and other benefits. Since workers' compensation was not meeting the needs, claimants flocked to the tort system in epidemic proportion resulting in "the longest running tort" in American judicial history, "asbestos litigation." That litigation continues to this day. Even scores of companies that have reorganized under bankruptcy to avoid liability exposure are now providing benefits under a claims procedure.

While the NJ Court's decision may have been on point with regard to the Rules adopted to govern workers' compensation cases, it is time to revisit whether the Rules are too strict and defeat the social and remedial goals of the system that was envisioned by the creators in 1911. On a global scale, the failure of the workers' compensation to provide benefits results in the inequitable shift of responsibility to the general taxpayer. 

To meet the needs of those exposed occupationally, Congress needs to act now upon a global and unified solution. One path to the goal of correcting inequities of the system is to advance a system of universal medical care.  The US government must do the right thing. The medical delivery system for occupational diseases must come under a national universal medical care program. Additionally Congress must meet its moral and social responsibility and finally ban asbestos use in the US once and for all.

Read the decision: Russo v. Hoboken Board of Education, A-1861-10T4 (App. Div. November 29, 2011)

"...the WCJ found that he knew asbestos could cause lung disease and other medical problems as early as "the 70s." She noted that Russo "made complaints about the exposures to harmful substances . . . while still teaching." The WCJ further found that Russo "was well aware of the potential harmful effects of asbestos exposure," and she rejected his claim that the petition was not time-barred "because he was never informed by any of his treating physicians that his cancer was related to this exposure."

For over 3 decades the Law Offices of Jon L. Gelman  1.973.696.7900 have been representing injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational accidents and illnesses.