A new Maryland case, Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association vs. Cree, provides a good look at occupational disease worker’s compensation claims in Maryland.
Occupational Disease and Workers’ Compensation
Occupational disease workers’ compensation claims revolve around illnesses or conditions that an employee contracts due to their work environment. When someone says “occupational disease,” they are referring to a health condition or ailment that emerges as a direct consequence of specific hazards or exposures in the workplace.
This is different from an acute workplace injury like most workers’ comp claims. These are those long-time-horizon diseases that develop over time – often many years – and are often the result of prolonged or repeated exposure to harmful elements or conditions, such as asbestos, chemicals, loud noises, or repetitive motions.
For an ailment to be classified as an occupational disease to win a comp case, a Maryland claimant must show that the specific work conditions that pose a risk, and this link should be greater than the everyday hazards faced by the rest of us. Not every illness a worker contracts while being employed will qualify for a workers’ compensation claim under the banner of occupational disease; it must be directly connected to the job.
The process of filing a claim for an occupational disease often requires providing medical evidence that the disease was indeed a result of workplace exposure. Furthermore, some jurisdictions might have a predefined list of recognized occupational diseases, while others assess claims on a case-by-case basis. One of the battlefields in these cases that Maryland workers’ compensation lawyers face is the argument that the diseases manifests so many years after the exposure, it can’t be related.
These claims aim to provide affected workers with compensation for medical bills, lost wages, rehabilitation costs, and sometimes, in severe cases, disability benefits. They acknowledge the inherent risks in certain professions and industries and aim to ensure that workers suffering from such diseases receive the care and support they deserve.
Maryland Law on Occupational Disease
The Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act (the “Act”) provides benefits to employees who experience disability or death due to an occupational disease arising from their employment. Occupational diseases can develop over a prolonged exposure to workplace hazards, potentially spanning employment with multiple employers and insurers.
Last Injurious Exposure Rule
The Act follows the “last injurious exposure rule”, assigning complete liability for an occupational disease claim to the most recent employer and its insurer. This rule simplifies the claim process by eliminating the need to dissect liability based on causation.
Occupational Hearing Loss
This case is about occupational hearing loss. The primary cause of occupational hearing loss is prolonged exposure to loud noise. The largest mass tort in world history is the 3M earplug claims that have nearly 300,000 plaintiff. Because bombs and guns are loud.
Jobs involving machinery, explosions, music, firearms, and certain tools are also prone to this risk and that is what our lawyers see in a workers’ compensation context. Apart from noise, certain chemicals used in workplaces can also contribute to hearing loss, either by themselves or by exacerbating the effects of noise.
Maryland Hear Loss Rules
There are specific rules in Maryland for occupational hearing loss. If an employee has been exposed to harmful noise at various workplaces, the liability can be divided among those employers, either equally or based on evidence. The “last injurious exposure rule” doesn’t apply in these cases. Is this complicated? It sure is. The Act doesn’t mention how insurers of these employers should be treated in terms of liability.
The key issue in this particular case is whether the “last injurious exposure rule” should be used when deciding the responsibility among an employer’s insurers for a claim based on occupational hearing loss.
Facts of Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association vs. Cree
The chad a long and dedicated career as a police officer, spanning almost 25 years across Maryland. His service began in Riverdale, a town which later became known as “Riverdale Park” in 1998. From there, he moved to the City of Laurel, where he served for six years before transferring to Prince George’s County, serving until 1995.
Well after his retirement, it was apparent that the officer’s hearing had significantly deteriorated. A professional evaluation confirmed this hearing impairment was severe enough to merit compensation under specific legal criteria. With this assessment, a claim was filed against Prince George’s County in early 2019, citing binaural hearing loss, a condition affecting both ears.
The County countered the claim. They implicated the officer’s two previous employers: Riverdale (now Riverdale Park) and the City of Laurel. Laurel brought into the fray the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association (PMA), which had previously insured the City during half of the period the officer worked there in the 1970s. For the period the City lacked insurance, another party, Appellee UEF, became involved in the claim.
A focal point of the comp hearing was the role of the PMA and whether they should be deemed as the City’s insurer during the officer’s tenure. The officer himself indicated consistent exposure to industrial noise throughout his service at the City. The PMA, however, contended their status as the City’s concluding insurer.
The Commission’s decision recognized that the officer had indeed suffered binaural hearing loss attributable to his occupational exposures. However, they opted against using the ‘last injurious exposure rule’ for this case. Instead, they divided the liability among all three police departments, based on the officer’s periods of noise exposure. The City of Laurel was deemed accountable for a quarter of the claim, and PMA was bound to the segment they insured the City during the officer’s term.
Dissatisfied, PMA contested the Commission’s decision. Taking their grievances to the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County, they appealed to the P.G. County Circuit Court for the application of the ‘last injurious exposure rule’ to absolve them of any obligations. The court affirmed the ruling so they appealed to the the Maryland Appellate Court.
The Appellate Court of Maryland’s Decision
The appellate court really drilled down on the legislative history of occupation disease in Maryland workers’ compensation claims. In 1967, when the General Assembly incorporated specific provisions addressing occupational hearing loss into the Act, there was no last injurious exposure rule. Instead, the law provided for the involvement of multiple employers and a distribution of liability which, of course, is the opposite of that rule. These amendments replaced the last injurious exposure’s strict bright-line rule with another one – an equal shares allocation – which could be adjusted based on supporting evidence.
In a side issue the seems pretty nonsensical, the court found that the entire Act’s context suggests that though the occupational hearing loss provisions state liability concerning employers, insurers are not exempted. PMA was pushing an argument that the omission of the term “insurer” in the context of occupational hearing loss provisions excused it from responsibility. There’s no hint in the 1967 amendment’s legislative history that using “employer” meant introducing a separate liability allocation method for employer’s insurers.