Rhode Island Finds Date of Disablement as Trigger of Coverage in Repetitive Trauma Claims

The Appellate Division of the Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation Court recently took steps to clarify the sometimes vexing problem of which carrier is to be assigned liability in an occupational disease claim. In Auda Vielman v. Tiffany Co., W.C.C. 2013-0164, the court considered the claims of various insurers for a repetitive trauma which “occurred” over numerous years performing repetitive work as a jewelry assembler for the same employer.

Rhode Island’s occupational disease statue typically assigns liability for repetitive trauma to the last insurer on the risk for the employer. After assigning liability to the last insurer, the statute allows this insurer to seek contribution against any prior employers which may have contributed to the occupational disease. The statute, however, does not permit contribution by previous insurers, only prior employers. Since contribution is not available, litigation over which insurer is to assume the risk of the employee’s injuries is often contentious. Such was the case here, where the employer’s insurers litigated coverage for this claim over many years.           

At the center of this controversy was the question of whether the insurer on the risk at the date of disablement or the date of manifestation of the injury should be responsible to pay the employee’s claim. Often, an employee will continue to work for the employer, even after treatment and manifestation have occurred. In Vielman, two of the employer’s insurers litigated the issue of whether date of disablement or date of manifestation should be the appropriate trigger of coverage. The Appellate Division, in its decision, sought to cement the rule first annunciated in Mellor v. Bristol County Water Authority, W.C.C. 1996-03165. In Mellor, the Appellate Division found that the date of disablement was the appropriate trigger of coverage and should be covered by the insurer on the risk at that time. The problem created in Mellor was the employee continued to work at his regular position, which was slightly modified by the employer to account for the employee’s ongoing symptoms. The court found that the modification of the employee’s regular job constituted a form of partial disability, thus triggering coverage.

In Vielman, the date of disability was more concrete. Here, the employee was diagnosed and treated for her right elbow condition. Despite this manifestation of the injury, the employee continued to work her regular job until having surgery to alleviate the condition. She became disabled as of the date of the surgery, and the Appellate Division held that the date of disablement was the appropriate trigger for assigning coverage. In so doing, the court rejected the Law's other jurisdictions which utilize the date of manifestation or some hybrid scheme, to determine coverage. While interpreting the statutory provisions, the court concluded that “the date of disability is the sole determining factor to ascertain liability between successive insurers in an occupational disease case.”

The Vielman case clarifies the Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation statute regarding liability amongst successive insurers for repetitive trauma claims. Insurers and self-insured employers, therefore, need to be mindful that even though an injury may manifest itself during a prior coverage period, the courts will look to the commencement of disability to assign liability when the employer’s insurer has changed.

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