Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Hopkins v. Kedzierski (Cal. Ct. App. - April 16, 2014)

What do you think about this one?

Plaintiff gets injured at work.  She files a worker's compensation claim against her employer and receives benefits.  Later, she files an application for additional worker's compensation benefits.

She subsequently files a lawsuit against her employer, but only after the statute of limitation for such a suit has expired.

Was the limitations period tolled while she applied for (or received) worker's compensation benefits?

On the one hand, it's generally true that a pending action can toll the limitations period.  After all, once the defendant knows you're suing them, they've got notice, so can adequately defend a subsequent action.

On the other hand, equitable tolling of this nature generally consists of an unsuccessful earlier suit.  So, in the typical case, plaintiff filed X lawsuit, it got dismissed (e.g., for jurisdictional reasons), and then plaintiff files a different suit.  By contrast, here, plaintiff won.  She got benefits.  So why toll the limitations period?

Plus, with worker's compensation claims, the payment of benefits -- or (as here) a request for additional benefits -- can happen over a decade or more.  Does the limitations period really get tolled during this entire period?

The Court of Appeal says it might.  Justice Aaron concludes that equitable tolling may apply even to a successful claim for worker's compensation benefits, and that while a virtually limitless tolling period might indeed exist, the fact that the defendant might suffer potential prejudice provides an inherent constraint on such a result.

I'm not completely persuaded.  There still seems to me the potential for lengthy tolling.  Plus, I'm just not sure why tolling exists in the first place.  The employer might not, for example, even care that (or object to) the employee receiving worker's compensation benefits.  So why should the filing for such benefits extend the period for filing suit?  It seems to me a distinction without a difference.  X gets injured at work and applies for benefits, which the employer is happy to provide.  Y gets injured at work and simply sues.  They sue on the same date.  Why does X's lawsuit go forward but Y's lawsuit is dismissed?  Especially when the need to compensate such parties somewhat conflicts with this result (since X has already been partially compensated by Y -- whose lawsuit is dismissed -- is not).

I understand the desire to extend limitations periods.  But I'm not sure that the application of traditional tolling principles applied to the filing of lawsuits really works as applied to the filing of applications for worker's compensation benefits.  We may be talking about apples and oranges here.  And saying -- as Justice Aaron does -- that some of the other limitations on equitable tolling might apply in particular cases doesn't entirely persuade me that we should nonetheless treat apples and oranges the same way.

Interesting case.  Important.  Potentially wrong.