Claim Time Barred Because Claimant Was Misled About Compensation Rights

In Palmer v. City of Pittsburgh, 9 Pa. Commw. 526, 308 A.2d 179 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1973), in 1964, the widow/claimant of a deceased firefighter, consulted the captain of the firehouse, the chief of the City of Pittsburgh's (City) Bureau of Fire, and an employee of the City's law offices regarding her right to workers' compensation benefits as a result of her husband's death. Each of these individuals informed the claimant that she was not entitled to any benefits. The claimant took no further action until 1970, more than six years after her husband's death, when she filed a fatal claim petition; however, at that time, fatal claim petitions had to be filed within sixteen months of the date of death. The workers' compensation referee/judge awarded death benefits, but the workers' compensation appeal board reversed, holding that the claim was time barred. On appeal to this court, the claimant argued that City employees misled her regarding her compensation rights and that the City should be estopped from asserting the sixteen-month time limitation. In considering this argument, this court stated, "courts can permit a claim to be filed after the time prescribed in the statute if fraud or its equivalent is shown, which in this connection includes an unintentional deception. the evidence to support such a claim must be clear and precise, more than of doubtful weight." Id. at 182 The court noted that virtually all of the cases which permitted a claimant to file a late claim under the workers' compensation act involved situations where the claimant was lulled into a false sense of security in that the claimant was led to believe that his or her claim was valid and was being taken care of, with no further action required on his or her part. However, the court also recognized that there could be situations where a claimant might not file a timely claim petition because of misleading actions or statements on the part of a trusted employer as to the invalidity of the claim. While the court noted that an employer might be estopped from pleading the limitation period in situations where the employer misleads an injured employee, the court also recognized that an employer has no affirmative duty to advise the injured employee of his or her rights. Moreover, "informing a claimant from the beginning that he has no claim or that his claim will not be paid is not in itself deceptive or misleading conduct on the part of the employer." Id. at 182. Consequently, the court determined that the City's statements to the claimant did not constitute such fraud or its equivalent necessary to permit the late filing of a fatal claim petition.