The workers’ compensation system is often described as a “statutory scheme.” This is because in 1911, the California legislature was directed to create the statutes and framework to help provide compensation to workers injured in the course and scope of their employment. Because the system is based on these statutes and those that were amended or added later, it is said to be statutory in nature. Nevertheless, there have been some times when equitable principles have been applied to workers’ compensation cases. One of these principles is laches.
Laches is a legal doctrine that means that an otherwise enforceable right may not be enforced if there is an unreasonable delay in asserting that right, and that delay results in injury to the opposing party. In essence, if you wait too long to bring a suit or ask for redress under the workers’ compensation system, the court may refuse to allow you to enforce your right to recover, even if you would have been able to recover if you brought your suit sooner. The California Supreme Court in Kaiser Foundation Hospitals v. Worker’s Comp. Appeals Board determined that laches is applicable to workers’ compensation cases. In that case, the Supreme Court determined that a claim for a lien can be barred by a defense of laches. Other court cases since then have also applied the doctrine of laches to workers’ compensation cases. For example, Godbolt v. Wherehouse Entertainment and Ace Insurance Company, the issue of laches came up when a case was settled in 1988 through a compromise and release, although the agreement did not relinquish jurisdiction over potential liens. Eight years later, the lien claimant contacted the defendant. The claimant then contacted the defendant again in 2000, 2006, and 2007. It was not until 2009 that the lien claimant finally hired an attorney and attempted to move forward with the lien. The defendant asserted the defense of laches, due to the unreasonable delay in bringing the claim as well as claiming it had been prejudiced by the fact so much time had passed. The WCAB determined that laches did not apply in this particular case because the defendant failed to make the necessary showing that it was actually prejudiced by the passage of so much time.
If you have questions about the defenses available to your business in a workers’ compensation case, we can help answer them. Call us today for a consultation.