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Scott Jeannette was an employee of General Mills Progresso. He went into cardiac arrest at work on June 7, 2011 and died nine days later from complications. He left a wife, Nacole, and a four-year-old son, Chase. Nacole filed a dependency claim petition over six months past the two-year statutory filing deadline. General Mills Progresso denied the claim as time barred. The Judge of Compensation denied both the widow’s claim and her son’s claim as time barred, leading to an appeal.
Ms. Jeannette argued on appeal that she experienced a period of temporary incapacity, which should excuse her failure to file in a timely fashion. As to her son, she argued that his claim should be tolled due to his infancy.
The Appellate Division considered the main argument of Ms. Jeannette, which was that a decision by the Supreme Court in a non-workers’ compensation context mandated a more liberal interpretation of the workers’ compensation statute, as it reads, N.J.S.A. 34:15-51 requires claimants to file their petitions in workers’ compensation within two years of the date of the accident. The statute also provides that “proceedings on behalf of an infant shall be instituted and prosecuted by a guardian, guardian ad litem, or next friend.” The statute goes on to provide that any claims not filed within the two-year period are forever barred.
Counsel for Ms. Jeannette argued that the case of Lafage v. Jani, 166 N.J. 412 (2001) should apply to workers’ compensation. In that case the Supreme Court of New Jersey allowed surviving children to bring a claim under the Wrongful Death Act, N.J.S.A.2A:31-1 to -6, for a parent’s death even after the statute of limitations period had expired. The Appellate Division rejected the argument that this wrongful death statute applied to workers’ compensation cases:
While we acknowledge the Court’s directive to apply statutes of limitations flexibly, we cannot ‘rewrite a plainly-written enactment of the Legislature or presume that the Legislature intended something other than that expressed by way of the statute’s plain language.’
(citations omitted). The Court reasoned, “Here, the Legislature did not include a tolling provision for minors in the workers’ compensation statute, and we do not presume the omission was a legislative oversight.” The Court noted that the Legislature must have considered the rights of minors because they did provide for guardians to represent minors in workers’ compensation.
In essence, the Court relied on the clear reading of the workers’ compensation statute and acknowledged that workers’ compensation is a creature of statute. It will be interesting to see if the widow seeks certification from the Supreme Court on this issue. The case can be found at Jeannette v. General Mills Progresso, A-5417-15T2 (App. Div. February 6, 2018).
John H. Geaney, Esq., is an Executive Committee Member and a Shareholder in Capehart Scatchard's Workers’ Compensation Group. Mr. Geaney concentrates his practice in the representation of employers, self-insured companies, third-party administrators, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act. Should you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Mr. Geaney at 856.914.2063 or by e‑mail at email@example.com.