In a decision handed down Sept. 20, 2019, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s dismissed of a workers’ compensation case where the trial court had ruled that the statute of limitations had expired when the action was initiated. Williams v. SWS LLC d/b/a SecureWatch, 2019 WL 4740106. I handled the appeal at the request of my Knoxville-based colleague Martin Ellis. This was a direct appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court by was of T.C.A. 50-6-225. This statute provides that appeals in workers’ compensation cases are appealed directly to the Supreme Court, bypassing the Court of Appeals. The statute also provides that the Supreme Court may, by order, refer the appeal to a panel known as the Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel, which consists of three judges designated by the Chief Justice, at least one of which must be a member of the Supreme Court. Once the panel reviews the briefs and hears oral argument, it issues a decision which becomes the decision of the Court unless a party requests appeal to the entire Supreme Court, or unless the Supreme Court decides, on its own initiative, to hear the case. In this case the appeal was referred to the Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel, which heard the case sitting in Knoxville.
The case highlights the difficulty in discerning whether a particular case involves a gradually-occurring injury or an occupational disease. The wording of the statutes of limitation for the two types of cases is at least different, although it is debatable whether the meaning is different. The Defendant argued that the statute of limitation had accrued when the employee realized or discovered that she had a compensable injury. But the Panel disagreed, holding that the discovery rule had no application. If the discovery rule were applied in cases of gradually occurring injury or occupational disease, the employee would be required to file suit as soon as he noticed any symptoms and believed them to be caused by his or her work. For example, the employee might be forced to file suit as soon as he noticed any pain in his back, however minor. Instead, the trial court is to apply the “last day worked” rule, under which the statute does not run until the employee is prevented from working due to the injury. In the case at bar, the Panel ruled that the discovery rule had no application. Neither party requested review by the full Supreme Court and this ruling became the ruling of the Court.