Hartman v. Ouellette Plumbing & Heating Corp

In Hartman v. Ouellette Plumbing & Heating Corp., 146 Vt. 443, 507 A.2d 952 (1985), the claimant had suffered a work-related injury to his left knee in 1976, but did not miss a significant amount of work and received no disability benefits, although he suffered some problems with his knee. In 1982, the claimant broke his right ankle in a nonwork-related accident, and, with his right leg in a cast, began to suffer increased problems with his left knee. Based upon "the newly discovered injury to his left knee," he filed a claim, which his employer denied. In 1983, he filed a notice and application for hearing before the Department. See id. at 445, 507 A.2d at 953. The Commissioner dismissed his claim, holding that the six-year statute of limitations had expired. The claimant appealed to the Court. The Court first addressed 21 V.S.A. 656, the six-month statute of limitations for filing a notice and claim, and, citing 660, concluded that, because the employer had knowledge of the accident, the claimant's delay in filing a notice and claim was not an "automatic bar to worker's compensation in this proceeding." Id. at 446, 507 A.2d at 953. Next, the Court stated that it would be unfair to rigidly apply the six-month and six-year statutes of limitation, particularly where "'the injury itself does not exist in compensable degree during the claims period.'" Id. at 446, 507 A.2d at 954 (quoting 3 A. Larson, The Law of Workmen's Compensation 78.42(a) (1985)). Therefore, the Court held that, for purposes of the notice and claim provisions of 656, and for purposes of the six-year statute of limitations, the date of injury "is the point in time when an injury becomes reasonably discoverable and apparent." Id. at 447, 507 A.2d at 954. After the injury becomes reasonably discoverable and apparent, a claimant is allowed six months to file a claim with his or her employer. And, "if such claim is denied or contested, the claimant may then bring an action within six years from the date the injury was reasonably discoverable and apparent." Id. Consequently, the Court vacated and remanded the claimant's case.