Illinois Supreme Court Rules Workers’ Compensation Is Employees’ Exclusive Remedy for Asbestos Claims Against Employers, Even if Workers’ Compensation Claim is Time-Barred

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The plaintiff was employed by Ferro Engineering for four years, and alleged that during this time he was exposed to products containing asbestos. Forty-one years after this employment he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, and sued Ferro under several theories including negligence. Ferro filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the exclusive remedy provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act (820 ILCS 305/5(a), 11 (West 2010)) and the Workers’ Occupational Diseases Act (820 ILCS 310/5(a), 11 (West 2010)).  The plaintiff replied that his claim fell outside these provisions because his claim was not “compensable,” in that the symptoms did not manifest until more than 40 years after his exposure, thus the claim was barred before he became aware of his injury under the 25-year limitation provision. The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the grant by the trial court of Ferro’s motion to dismiss.

In so holding, the court reviewed the purpose of the workers’ compensation acts, and noted that both contain exclusive remedy provisions which balance the sacrifices and gains of employees and employers. Of the four categories of exclusions to the exclusive remedy provisions, plaintiff argued his claim was not compensable under the Act because he never had an opportunity to recover any benefits, as the claim was time-barred before the disease manifested. The court analyzed prior law in what was meant by “compensable,” and found that whether an injury is compensable is related to whether the type of injury fits within the purview of the Act. “Here, there is no question that based on the allegations in the complaint, (plaintiff’s) disease is the type of disease intended to fall within the purview of the Act…There is no dispute for purposes of this appeal that (plaintiff’s) disease was precipitated by occupational exposure to asbestos.”  The Acts specifically addressed disease caused by asbestos, and employees/spouses have recovered for injuries from workplace asbestos exposure under the Act. Thus, the legislature intended that occupational diseases arising from workplace exposure be covered within the Act.  Further, prior Illinois decisions stand for the proposition that despite limitations, including time, on the amount and type of recovery under the Act, the Act is the employee’s exclusive remedy.

The court noted the harsh result of its analysis, and stated it was the province of the legislature to draw the appropriate balance for such claims. The court likewise rejected plaintiff’s constitutional arguments of equal protection, prohibition against special legislation, and the right to a certain remedy.

Read the full decision here.