Maine Workers’ Compensation Appellate Division Addresses Statute of Limitations

In the recent case Estate of Ralph Zeitman v. WW Osborne, a widow whose petition for death benefits against five employers was dismissed on statute of limitations grounds prevailed on appeal to the Appellate Division of the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board. The widow, Ms. Zeitman, filed her petitions against the employers twelve years after the death of her husband. The employers filed a joint motion to dismiss, raising the two-year statute of limitations period on death claims. Because he was asked to decide the issue on a motion, rather than after a hearing, the hearing officer made every inference in favor of Ms. Zeitman, including assuming that she was operating under a mistake of fact as to the reason of Mr. Zeitman’s death until shortly prior to the filing of the petitions. Despite the assumption of a mistake of fact, the hearing officer found that twelve years was not a “reasonable time” within which to file petitions and granted the motion to dismiss.

The Appellate Division reversed, finding that, in the event of a mistake of fact as to the cause of death, the two year statute of limitations did not begin to run until the widow’s mistake of fact was cured. The case was remanded to the hearing officer for further proceedings consistent with the decision.

This case provides employers and insurers with some additional clarity regarding the mistake of fact exception to the statute of limitations defense. It is now clear that the limitations period does not begin to run until the mistake of fact is cured, effectively entitling the claimant to the full limitations period after she becomes aware that she has a viable claim.

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