Discuillo v. Stone and Webster

Citation698 A.2d 873,242 Conn. 570
Decision Date19 August 1997
Docket NumberNo. 15581,15581
CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut

Amy M. Stone, with whom was Carolyn P. Kelly, Groton, for appellant (plaintiff).

Lucas D. Strunk, Glastonbury, for appellee (named defendant).


BORDEN, Associate Justice.

The dispositive issue in this certified appeal is whether, under the circumstances of this case, the limitation period within which the plaintiff was required to file his workers' compensation claim began to run before he actually was aware that the heart attack he had suffered was work-related. 1 The plaintiff, Peter Discuillo, appeals from the judgment of the Appellate Court affirming the decision of the compensation review board (board). The board had determined that the workers' compensation commissioner (commissioner) improperly had concluded that the plaintiff's notice of claim was timely filed. We conclude that the plaintiff's notice of claim was not timely filed and, accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court.

The relevant facts, as found by the commissioner, are set forth in the Appellate Court opinion. "Prior to November 12, 1982, the plaintiff was employed by the defendant, Stone and Webster, 2 as a painter. The plaintiff's responsibilities required him to climb ladders and to work on scaffolding while carrying five gallon buckets of paint and heavy pneumatic grinding equipment. While working, the plaintiff was constantly watched by job supervisors who pressured the plaintiff and his coworkers to get work done within certain time constraints. The plaintiff testified that he was in constant fear of losing his job because of his inability to keep up with the speed at which younger coworkers accomplished the same work.

"On November 12, 1982, the plaintiff sustained a heart attack after working the entire day on scaffolding using a heavy grinding machine. The plaintiff has not worked since that date. The plaintiff did not relate the heart attack to job stress until September, 1984, when he read in a newspaper about a similar case. On September 27, 1984, the plaintiff filed a notice of claim that identified his injury as the November 12, 1982 heart attack while in the defendant's employ. On October 22, 1984, the defendant filed a notice contesting the claim on the grounds that (1) the heart attack did not arise out of the employment and (2) the claim was barred by the (General Statutes [Rev. to 1981] ) § 31-294 3 time limitation.

"On December 13, 1993, the commissioner issued his findings and award. The commissioner found that the heart attack suffered by the plaintiff arose out of the course of his employment with the defendant and was caused by physical and mental stress while on the job, as well as arteriosclerotic heart disease. The commissioner also found that the plaintiff filed the notice of claim within one year of the date on which the plaintiff understood the causal relationship between the heart attack and the job stress. The commissioner concluded that the plaintiff's claim was not time barred under § 31-294.

"The board reversed the commissioner's decision and concluded that the plaintiff's claim is barred by § 31-294. The board held that a heart attack is an accidental injury and not an injury that is the direct result of repetitive trauma and that notice of claim for a heart attack must be filed within one year of the attack to be timely." Discuillo v. Stone & Webster, 43 Conn.App. 224, 225-26, 682 A.2d 145 (1996).

The Appellate Court, relying on its interpretation of our decision in Crochiere v. Board of Education, 227 Conn. 333, 630 A.2d 1027 (1993), affirmed the decision of the board. The Appellate Court concluded that, even if a heart attack was an injury that was the result of a repetitive trauma, as opposed to an accidental injury, the one year filing limitation of § 31-294 automatically applied to the former type of claim as well as to the latter. Discuillo v. Stone & Webster, supra, 43 Conn.App. at 226, 682 A.2d 145. The Appellate Court further concluded that, for a repetitive trauma claim, "the date of injury is either the last day of exposure to the work related incidents of repetitive trauma or the date of the accident." Id., at 226-27, 682 A.2d 145. Accordingly, because "the plaintiff failed to file a notice of claim within one year from the last date of employment, which was the day he suffered the heart attack," his claim was, as the board had determined, time barred. Id., at 227, 682 A.2d 145. This appeal followed.

The plaintiff's principal claim is that the Appellate Court improperly determined that the limitation period on his claim effectively began to run on the last day of his employment, rather than on the date that he became aware that his injury was work-related. 4 The defendant responds that the Appellate Court correctly held that repetitive trauma claims always must be filed within one year of the claimant's last day of exposure to the relevant stress, and that the claimant's date of awareness of the nature of his injury is irrelevant. We conclude that, even if the plaintiff's heart attack is properly classified as a repetitive trauma injury, rather than an accidental injury, the limitation period in this case began to run on the date of the plaintiff's heart attack, which was also his last day of work and therefore the last day on which he was exposed to the relevant work-related traumas. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court.

The workers' compensation scheme explicitly provides for three categories of compensable injury: (1) accidental injury; (2) repetitive trauma injury; and (3) occupational disease. See General Statutes (Rev. to 1981) § 31-275(8); 5 McDonough v. Connecticut Bank & Trust Co., 204 Conn. 104, 109, 527 A.2d 664 (1987); Grady v. St. Mary's Hospital, 179 Conn. 662, 668, 427 A.2d 842 (1980). The mere fact that an injury is of a type that is compensable, however, does not of itself mean that the commissioner properly may consider a claim based on that injury. The notice and filing prerequisites of § 31-294, which are jurisdictional; Rossi v. Jackson Co., 120 Conn. 456, 457, 181 A. 539 (1935); must also be satisfied. See, e.g., Figueroa v. C & S Ball Bearing, 237 Conn. 1, 4-5, 675 A.2d 845 (1996). The difficulty in the present case arises from the fact that, although § 31-294 specifically addresses the jurisdictional filing prerequisites that must be satisfied in order to bring an accidental injury or occupational disease claim, the statute is silent both as to the duration of the filing period for repetitive trauma claims and as to when that period begins to run. 6

The plaintiff argues that, given this statutory silence, the "humanitarian purpose" of the workers' compensation system is best effectuated by judicial creation of a rule that the filing period for repetitive trauma claims as a class should not begin to run until the claimant is aware of the fact that the injury in question is work-related. He relies on the board's decision in Boutin v. Industrial Components, 4 Conn. Workers' Comp. Rev. Op. 19 (1987). In Boutin, the board specifically held that the limitation period for claims of repetitive trauma injury must be tolled until a claimant "knew or should have known" that a disabling condition arose from employment; id., at 23; because it would be "offen[sive] to equity and logic" to hold that a claimant's remedy could expire before he or she was aware of the source of an injury. Id., at 21.

The fundamental problem with the plaintiff's position is that it ignores the fact that the workers' compensation system in Connecticut is derived exclusively from statute. We have previously observed that the workers' compensation commission, like any administrative body, "must act strictly within its statutory authority.... It cannot modify, abridge, or otherwise change the statutory provisions under which it acquires authority unless the statutes expressly grant it that power." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Figueroa v. C & S Ball Bearing, supra, 237 Conn. at 4, 675 A.2d 845, citing Castro v. Viera, 207 Conn. 420, 428, 541 A.2d 1216 (1988). A commissioner may exercise jurisdiction to hear a claim only "under the precise circumstances and in the manner particularly prescribed by the enabling legislation." Heiser v. Morgan Guaranty Trust Co., 150 Conn. 563, 565, 192 A.2d 44 (1963); see also Kinney v. State, 213 Conn. 54, 60, 566 A.2d 670 (1989). "[I]t is settled law that the commissioner's jurisdiction is confined by the [Workers' Compensation Act] and limited by its provisions." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Gagnon v. United Aircraft Corp., 159 Conn. 302, 305, 268 A.2d 660 (1970).

Accordingly, although we do not necessarily disagree with the plaintiff's analysis of the equities, we are not free to craft a limitation period for repetitive trauma claims in accordance therewith. "Even though the plaintiff has presented a factual record that warrants sympathetic consideration of [his] claims, [his] entitlement to relief cannot transcend the jurisdictional limits of the statute under which [he] seeks recovery." Kinney v. State, supra, 213 Conn. at 58, 566 A.2d 670. Because of the statutory nature of our workers' compensation system, policy determinations as to what injuries are compensable and what jurisdictional limitations apply thereto are for the legislature, not the judiciary or the board, to make. Indeed, the board recognized this fact in the case of Dorsey v. United Technologies Corp./Norden Systems, 15 Conn. Workers' Comp. Rev. Op. 447, 452-53, (1996), wherein the board expressly acknowledged that its analysis in Boutin had been flawed and rescinded the rule established by that decision.

We therefore conclude that, for a commissioner to have jurisdiction over a claim, that claim must fit...

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