In Wagner v. W.C.A.B. (Ty Const. Co., Inc.), the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania overturned an order by the workers’ compensation judge that dismissed the claimant’s petition for benefits after he failed to timely present his medical evidence in accordance with the judge’s schedule. The court said imposing the sanction of a dismissal was improper where the claimant’s counsel was actively trying to reschedule the deposition of the medical expert, the claimant’s unforeseen delays did not result in any prejudice to the employer and some of the delays were attributable to the employer’s own conduct.
In 2011, the claimant filed a workers’ compensation claim for total disability benefits and payment of his medical expenses, alleging that he had been diagnosed with small cell lung cancer, and that the disease was caused by being exposed to paint chemicals while working for the employer. The employer denied the allegations.
In 2012, the workers’ compensation judge granted the employer’s motion to dismiss the petition on the ground that the claimant had failed to meet the judge’s deadline for submitting medical evidence to support his claim that the cancer was caused by his exposure to paint chemicals in the workplace.
The claimant appealed, and the decision was affirmed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board. The claimant then filed a petition for judicial review in the Commonwealth Court.
The Commonwealth Court’s ruling
On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, the claimant argued that the dismissal order was an unduly harsh penalty. The court agreed. The court noted that special rules of procedure permit the workers’ compensation judge to waive or modify time deadlines if good cause is shown, including deadlines for the submission of medical evidence. While the workers’ compensation judge may order the parties to complete litigation in a timely manner, prior court precedent established the principle that the sanction of dismissal for lack of prosecution cannot be imposed without evidence demonstrating that the delay was prejudicial to the employer. In this case, said the court, the employer did not allege or prove that it was prejudiced by the claimant’s delays in submitting medical evidence.
The court stated that an exception to this rule applies in cases where the evidence shows that the claimant’s counsel was not trying to advance the case and meet the workers’ compensation judge’s schedule. The court found that this exception did not apply in this case. It was undisputed that the claimant’s counsel had attempted to reschedule the deposition of his medical expert. The claimant’s counsel faced an unanticipated delay when he learned that the oncologist who treated the claimant refused to become involved in the litigation. The workers’ compensation judge gave the claimant one month-a tight schedule, said the court-to find a new expert, schedule a medical deposition and have a medical report prepared.
The court found that the claimant’s counsel had exercised his best efforts in attempting to comply with the workers’ compensation judge’s deadlines and that his noncompliance was not due to any fault on his part.
The court also noted that part of the delay was attributable to the employer. The employer had requested a continuance, and the deposition was also delayed for three months while the parties waited for the employer’s physician to produce an independent medical examination report.
Proceedings under the Workers’ Compensation Act can involve complex legal matters. Individuals seeking relief under the Act are urged to consult the professional services of a competent attorney who is experienced in such matters to ensure that their rights are protected.