Contra Non Valentem Doctrine Overcomes Prescription

Generally, a workers’ compensation claimant has a one year prescriptive period after the accident or death to file a formal claim.  If the claim is not filed within one year, it will be barred.  Alternatively, prescription may be suspended pursuant to the common law doctrine of contra non valentem, which halts prescription from running against a person who is unable to bring suit.

There are several grounds for application of the contra non valentem doctrine.  In Estate of Belaire v. Crawfish Town USA, the appellate court applied the doctrine on the grounds that the cause of action was not known or reasonably knowable by the plaintiff, even though the ignorance was not induced by the defendant.

In this matter, claimants, who were dependent children of a deceased employee, filed a claim for death benefits alleging that the employee’s death was caused by an overdose of medication prescribed as a result of a work accident.  The employee died on April 12, 2013, and the employee’s family believed the death to be from natural causes.  On May 20, 2013, a death certificate was issued, listing the cause of death as accidental overdose of prescription medication.  On May 7, 2014, a disputed claim for compensation was filed by claimants with the Office of Workers’ Compensation.   Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that the claim was filed after the prescriptive period of one year from the employee’s death.  The workers’ compensation judge granted summary judgment, and claimants appealed.

The appellate court found that although the claim for death benefits prescribed on its face, the prescriptive period was interrupted and did not commence until May 20, 2013, when the claimants had a reasonable basis to pursue a claim for death benefits.  Before May 20, 2013, claimants reasonably believed that the employee’s death was of natural causes, and not work related.  It was not until May 20, 2013, when the death certificate identified the cause of death as an overdose of medication, that the prescriptive period commenced.  Because the claim for death benefits was filed within one year of May 20, 2013, the appellate court reversed the workers’ compensation judge’s decision granting summary decision to the defendants.