The Montana Workers' Compensation Court recently issued a new opinion in Larson v. Montana State Fund. Larson sought to have his occupational disease claim to be dismissed without prejudice or alternatively, to put the matter in abeyance. The insurer, Montana State Fund, objected.
In making his request, Larson challenged the Court's jurisdiction over the matter arguing that no benefits were in dispute in that Larson was not seeking medical benefits since his medical bills were being paid through Medicare. Larson had originally filed a Petition for Hearing seeking a determination of liability on the part of MSF and requesting that MSF be ordered to pay reasonable medical expenses in additional to a penalty and fees for unreasonable conduct. He then subsequently filed a motion challenging the jurisdiction and alternatively, if jurisdiction existed, an indefinite abeyance.
MSF objected arguing that by seeking a determination of liability, Larson was in fact seeking benefits. Clearly, one of the few viable defenses in recent days to asbestos cases is the statute of limitations. The claim was denied and Larson was seeking to avoid the impact of Section 39-71-2905, MCA which establishes a statute of limitations of two years from the date of denial.
Judge Sandler disagreed with Larson's jurisdiction argument finding that a dispute over the liability of a claim was in point of fact, a dispute over benefits conferring jurisdiction to the Court. The fact that Larson's medical bills were being paid by Medicare through the Lincoln County program (referred to in the decision as the "Libby Medicare plan") was of no consequence as the Court correctly identified it as a secondary payer under the Medicare Secondary Payer Act.
Similarly, the Court rejected the alternative request for an "abeyance" finding no such authority when the "abeyance" is opposed by a party. The Court noted that insurers are also entitled to a "timely day in court." The Court also agreed with the MSF argument that given the complexity of asbestos cases and the frequency of "last injurious exposure" analysis in such cases, relevant evidence could be lost by indefinite delay.
Of note was the quick turnaround on the decision. The matter was submitted on December 22nd and decision issued January 16th.
Submitted: 12/22/14 Issued: 1/16/15
Attorneys for Larson: Laurie Wallace, Jon Heberling and Ethan Welder.
Attorney for MSF: Tom Martello