In this case, decided by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in November 2008, the doctrine of res judicata was applied to prevent an injured worker from litigating the issue of whether a certain diagnosis was work-related in the context of a Petition to Review- which is one of the mechanisms to pursue a work-related diagnosis in a Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation case.
Under the doctrine of res judicata, also known as claim preclusion, “when a final judgment on the merits exists, a future suit between the parties on the same cause of action is precluded”. There are four elements that must be met in order for res judicata to apply: 1) identity of the thing sued upon or for; 2) identity of the cause of action; 3) identity of the persons and parties to the action; and 4) identity of the quality or capacity of the parties suing or being sued.
The purpose of this principle is to foster efficiency and to avoid piece-meal litigation, as the Court in Weney noted. In the context of a Review Petition under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, the idea is that when an injured worker files such a petition, that he must include all of the diagnoses he believes are work-related- such that they can all be litigated in one round of litigation, rather than spread out over time which would increase the costs dramatically given the expense of doctors’ depositions and the use of court resources, etc.
But Weney doesn’t apply when an injured worker merely has a personal belief that a certain injury/diagnosis is work-related. It applies when there is “concrete evidence that Claimant was aware of the injury and its relatedness to the work incident”. This is a critical distinction because there are many cases where an injured worker believes a condition is related to a work incident or work activity, yet hasn’t been informed by a medical expert that such condition is causally related. Simply put, to read Weney as requiring such a burden would yield absurd results-namely, the influx of thousands of Review Petitions based on personal beliefs, rather than medical evidence, which would potentially burden our system so much so that it crumbles before our eyes.
I applaud my colleagues for trying to apply Weney in cases where an injured worker, at the time of Review Petition I, testifies that he believes a condition is work-related, but without medical records indicating this- or that the injured worker was informed of the causal connection, only to later assert during Review Petition II that the litigation as to the work-relatedness of this condition is barred by technical res judicata. But the Court in Weney specifically went out of its way to quote language from Claimant’s treating physician that he informed Claimant that his condition (ie, neck pain) was related to his work incident.
It’s natural for attorneys to read favorable holdings with broad construction. But it’s also natural for attorneys to read unfavorable holdings with strict construction- but here it’s quite justified. Weney is limited to very specific contexts- where Claimants knew- not from their own belief, but vis-a-vis a physician, that their condition 1) exists and 2) is work-related.
For more info about Pennsylvania Work Comp, call Michael Cardamone at 215-206-9068 or email firstname.lastname@example.org