Dvorak v. State Fund

Dvorak v. State Fund, 2013 MT 210 (July 30, 2013) (5-2) (Cotter, J., for the majority, Rice, J., dissenting)

Issue: Whether the Workers’ Compensation Court properly granted summary judgment to the State Fund after concluding Dvorak’s claim for occupational disease benefits was barred by the 12-month statute of limitations in § 39-71-601(3), MCA.

Short Answer: No.

Reversed and remanded

Facts: Dianne Dvorak began working at Wheat Montana in 2002. She first sought treatment for back pain in 2006, and periodically thereafter. Her condition worsened over time, and in May 2011, her doctor referred her to an orthopedic specialist and told her she could not work until the specialist evaluated her. That day, Dvorak filed a report of injury with her employer for the first time. She did not state a claim for benefits for any conditions suffered or treated before December 2010.

The specialist concluded Dvorak had thoracic strain and possible exacerbation of an underlying spinal condition secondary to industrial injury. Dvorak did not return to work after May 2011.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The State Fund denied Dvorak’s claim on the basis that it was untimely filed, asserting the 12-month statute of limitations applied.  Dvorak petitioned for a hearing in the Work Comp Court in August 2011, and the State Fund moved for summary judgment in December. The court heard argument in April 2012, and granted the State Fund’s motion in October 2012. Dvorak appeals, and the Supreme Court reverses.

Reasoning: An occupational disease arises out of employment if the disease is established by objective medical findings and events occurring on more than a single day or work shift are the major contributing cause. § 39-71-407(9), MCA. The statute begins to run when the worker knew or should have known that her condition resulted from an occupational disease. The question is when Dvorak knew or should have known. The State Fund argues February 2006 triggered the statute, as that was when Dvorak first sought medical treatment for work-related pain, followed by regular pain medication and occasional treatment. Dvorak argues her condition had stabilized and was then aggravated in late 2010 or early 2011, and that the aggravation constituted a new compensable occupational disease.

The WCC did not reference the affidavit or deposition of Dvorak’s treating physician’s affidavit. Because this testimony raised genuine issues of material fact, summary judgment was improper.

Justice Rice’s Dissent (joined by Justice McKinnon): The Court “has deftly remade the case” by determining an issue neither raised by Dvorak nor contested by the parties. The issue is whether the aggravation of Dvorak’s pre-existing condition was a new compensable occupational disease that triggered the 12-month statutory period. Neither the law nor the record support such a holding. Dvorak received a continuing course of medical treatment for a work-related condition to her back and shoulder that worsened over time, but was the same condition. She did not suffer a new occupational disease.