Workers' Comp claim 23 years after `needle stick'. (Nursing Law Case on Point).
ISSUE: Nurses are well aware that one of the many occupational hazards of their profession are needle sticks and the risk of contracting, inter alia, hepatitis C. In this unusual Arkansas case, the courts were confronted with the question of whether a nurse who had sustained a needle stick 23 years earlier had a bona fide Workers' Compensation claim when she was diagnosed as having hepatitis C 23 years after the needle stick. Was the hepatitis C an occupational disease? Was the nurse entitled to Workers' Compensation benefits 23 years after the needle stick.
CASE FACTS: Sheila Young sustained a needle stick while employed by Cross County Hospital where she worked as a nursing assistant from July 1975 until January 1977. The hospital was made aware of the incident. Although no claim was made for Workers' Compensation at the time, Sheila Young was hospitalized in November 1975. Discharge statements indicated that she had been exposed to an infectious hepatitis patient six weeks earlier. Hospital records also showed that although her bilirubin was normal upon admission, her SGOT and her SGPT (liver enzymes) were elevated, and she had a history of nausea, pain in the lower back, weakness, fatigue, and lethargy. She was discharged with a final diagnosis of "sinusitis." From 1993 through 1997, she complained of feeling bad and underwent repeated SGOT and SGPT tests. The results from each of those tests were abnormal. In December of 1998, a liver biopsy confirmed that she suffered from hepatitis C. On December 9, 1998, she filed a claim for Workers' Compensation benefits on the grounds that she had sustained a work-related injury associated with hepatitis exposure in 1975. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), applying the Workers' Compensation laws in effect in 1975, held that the claimant's hepatitis C condition was an occupational disease or infection, and her claim for benefits was barred by the statute of limitations. In making her decision, the ALJ relied on Arkansas law, which provided, in pertinent part, that "the following diseases only shall be deemed to be occupational diseases ... Infectious or contagious disease contracted in the course of employment in, or in immediate connection with, a hospital or sanatorium in which persons suffering from such disease are cared for or treated." Further, the ALJ found that the applicable statute of limitations governing the claim was two years. The full commission affirmed the decision of the ALJ and adopted that decision. Sheila Young appealed.
COURT'S OPINION: The Arkansas Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the Workers' Compensation Commission. The court held, inter alia, that the definition of "occupational disease" applied in this case. Because the definition of occupational disease fails to draw a distinction between infectious diseases incurred by a single exposure as opposed to infectious diseases incurred by numerous exposures, the court concluded that the circumstances alleged by the claimant described an "occupational disease" and not an "injury." The court further noted that a claim for an occupational disease is barred unless filed within two years from the date of the last injurious exposure. The court observed that the claimant acknowledged that her last exposure to the hepatitis C patient was in 1975. There was no evidence of any other similar exposure during the course of employment.
LEGAL COMMENTARY: This case illustrates the significance of noting any work-related incident or injury. Out of an abundance of caution, nurses should always file a formal notice of any work-related injury with their employer. If the claimant in this case had, in fact, filed a notice of her claim within two years of the needle stick which occurred back in 1975, she would have complied with the applicable two-year statute of limitations for filing a Workers' Compensation claim. Consequently, any recurrent disability arising from that claim might entitle her to benefits. In many states once a claim is filed, the claimant establishes, by operation of law, the fact that for the next ten (in some states) years if there is any disability which can be directly attributed to having been caused by the injury, the disability would be compensable under Workers' Compensation law. So too, the costs of any and all necessary medical care and treatment would be covered under Workers' Compensation. Accordingly, nurses are urged to follow the philosophy that if an injury is sustained in the course of work, however innocuous it might appear at the time, they should file a timely notice to secure their rights under the applicable Workers' Compensation law. There need not necessarily be any disability or medical costs incurred. However, the fact that an employee can show that he or she was injured in the course of his or her employment may ensure their entitlement to Workers' Compensation benefits years later. Unfortunately, many employees are reluctant to file any such claims for fear of jeopardizing their position with an employer. When in doubt, file!
Meet the Editor & Publisher: A. David Tammelleo, JD. is a nationally recognized authority on health care law. Practicing law for nearly 40 years, he concentrates in health care law with the Rhode Island law firm of A. David Tammelleo & Associates. He has presented seminars on medical, nursing and hospital law throughout the United States. In addition to his writings as Editor of Medical Law's, Nursing Law's & Hospital Law's Reagan Reports, his legal articles have been published in the most prestigious health law journals. A prolific writer, his thousands of articles, as well as his achievements as an attorney and lecturer, have won him recognition in Martindale-Hubbell's Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers and Marquis Who's Who in American Law.