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The Challenges in Bringing an Asbestos-Related Workers’ Compensation Claim

While workplace accidents and injuries happen in every industry, energy and atomic workers are especially at-risk given their exposure to chemicals, asbestos, and radiation. While the Tennessee workers’ compensation system is supposed to protect energy and atomic workers, employers will employ every legal means at their disposal to avoid paying benefits. And a recent decision by the court charged with hearing Tennessee workers’ compensation appeals illustrates just how much of an uphill fight many energy workers face.

Ex-Oak Ridge Employee Allowed to Proceed with Asbestos Claim

The employee in this case worked at the U.S. Department of Energy’s facility Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for two different employers over a 13-year period. In 2003, the employee filed his first workers’ compensation lawsuit, seeking benefits for “breathing impairments and hearing loss” caused by exposure to chemicals and excessive noise at Oak Ridge. This lawsuit resulted in a 2005 settlement which found the employee suffered a 9.9 percent partial disability due to hearing loss. The settlement further stipulated the employee had dismissed “all claims of lung dysfunction or pulmonary or breathing impairment.”

In 2011, the employee filed a second workers’ compensation lawsuit, this time as a result of “fibrosis and asbestosis or asbestos related lung disease” suffered while working at Oak Ridge. The employer moved to dismiss this lawsuit, arguing the legal doctrine of “res judicata” barred the employee’s claims. Res judicata means a person cannot re-litigate an issue that has already been finally adjudicated by a prior court. In other words, the employer here argued the employee’s asbestos-related claims were already addressed in the 2005 settlement of the 2003 lawsuit.

The trial court sided with the employer. The judge said the employee “settled whatever claims he had for breathing impairment back in 2005, and I think that’s res judicata.” The employee appealed to the Special Workers’ Compensation Panel of the Tennessee Supreme Court. On December 10, 2015, the Panel reversed the trial judge and returned the case for trial.

The Panel did not rule on the merits of the employee’s asbestos claim, leaving that to the trial court. Rather, it held such a claim was not barred by the earlier settlement. The Panel noted the 2003 lawsuit only referred to “breathing impairments,” not asbestosis or any other specific lung dysfunction. As far as the Panel was concerned, this meant the 2005 settlement may have only covered “asthma, allergies or some other pulmonary problem caused by an agent other than asbestos.”

The Panel also credited the testimony of the employee’s thoracic surgeon, which suggested the employee “did not know of the existence of his asbestos-related disease” prior to the filing of his second lawsuit in 2011—or several years after agreeing to the 2005 settlement. At a minimum, the Panel said, further proceedings before the trial court were necessary before simply dismissing the case in favor of the employer.

Need Help with a Workers’ Compensation Claim?

In any type of workers’ compensation action, employees may be pressured to settle on unfavorable terms. If you are an atomic or energy worker, it is therefore in your best interest to have an experienced Tennessee accident attorney fighting for your rights under the law. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Knoxville or Clinton if you need to speak with someone today.

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