You might wonder how long an injured worker has to file a workers’ compensation claim for an occupational heart attack. The answer depends on when the worker discovers that the occupational heart attack is work related. The case that best explains this “discovery rule” provision is the New Jersey Supreme Court opinion in Panzino vs. Continental Can Company, 71 N.J.298 (1976). In that case, the petitioner last worked for respondent in 1966. During Panzino’s employment he had been exposed to loud noise and he experienced hearing loss. He did not discover that his hearing loss was work-related until September 14, 1972, and filed his workers’ compensation claim immediately thereafter. The court held that the claim was not barred because it was filed within two years of the date when the hearing loss was discovered to be work-related, even though it was not filed until six years after employment ended.
In Fiore vs. Consolidated Freightways, 140 N.J.452 (1995), the occupational disease section of the Workers’ Compensation Act is discussed in detail. Mr. Fiore claimed that drivers would often leave their trucks running while loading and unloading. He described an environment of dust and fumes. Mr. Fiore was overweight, smoked two packs a day, and his father had died of a heart attack at age 69. On August 8, 1986, after Mr. Fiore had been working for two or three hours he experienced an angina heart attack. The medical testimony was vague about the extent of carbon monoxide exposure because there was no carbon monoxide level testing done at the plant. Furthermore, Mr. Fiore’s own expert concluded that cigarette smoking would have exposed him to carbon monoxide. The initial question for the Supreme Court was whether the claim should be analyzed under the Statute dealing with traumatic heart claims, or the provision dealing with occupational heart claims. The court decided that the “compensable occupational disease” section of the statute was the better approach, but it blended parts of the traumatic heart attack statute into the test to determine compensability. The statute of limitations that applies to a workers’ compensation heart attack case depends on whether or not the heart attack was occupational (happened over time) as opposed to a traumatic heart attack (one time event).
The overall theme in the above mentioned cases is that the statute of limitations does not begin to toll against a petitioner until that person knows that an occupational disease is work related. In Lapka v. Porter Hayden Co, 162 N.J. 545 (2000) the Court stated that “…some reasonable medical support is required…” Therefore it is reasonable that a worker would meet the statutory requirement for filing a claim for an occupational heart attack if he or she files a claim within two years of the time that they were in possession of information sufficient to relate their heart attack to their work effort. The statute of limitations for filing a claim for a traumatic heart attack is two years from the date of the heart attack.