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June 05, 2019
Illinois bill allows lawsuits for occupational illnesses

Illinois workers and their families can now sue employers for long-developing occupational illnesses under a new state law.  The law enables workers and their families to file civil suits against employers after the clock has run out on the state’s workers’ compensation and occupational diseases laws.

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The new law also:

  • Has no cap on employer liabilities, including punitive damages; and
  • Allows an employee, employee’s heirs, or anyone with standing to sue an employer.

Folta v. Ferro Engineering decision

A 2015 Illinois Supreme Court Decision upholding the 25-year statute of limitations under the state’s Workers’ Compensation and Workers’ Occupational Diseases Acts prompted the bill. James Folta was diagnosed with mesothelioma 41 years after his exposure to asbestos-containing products during his four years as a shipping clerk and product tester for Ferro Engineering.

The court ruled the state’s Workers’ Compensation and Workers’ Occupational Diseases Acts barred Folta and his family from seeking compensation from Ferro Engineering. The court ruled that while Folta and his family could not receive compensation from his former employer, they could recover damages from third parties like the products’ manufacturers.

Democrats’ response

State Senator Elgie R. Sims, Jr. (D-Chicago) and Representative Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) responded to the Folta v. Ferro Engineering decision by introducing a bill (SB 1596) intended to help workers who develop illnesses long after workplace exposures to asbestos, beryllium, or radiation.

“For far too long, employees have suffered from bad workplace conditions with no source of relief,” Sims said in a statement.

“Often they do not see symptoms until 30 to 50 years after exposure. We must end the statute of limitations and ensure their right to recovery.”

The bill passed the legislature and Governor J.B. Pritzker signed it into law. The law became effective immediately.

Chamber of Commerce opposition

Illinois Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Maisch had urged Governor Pritzker to veto the bill. The liabilities created by the new law, including the potential for punitive damages, could make liability insurance unaffordable for some Illinois employers, Maisch argued.

The Illinois Chamber stated that employers were not consulted during the development of the bill. Maisch advocated for a veto of the bill followed by negotiations among stakeholders to address concerns raised by the Folta v. Ferro Engineering decision.

Upending Workers’ Compensation

Workers’ compensation laws vary by state. Workers’ compensation laws generally benefit both workers and employers for two reasons:

  • Workers or their families can recover medical costs for treating an injury or illness, as well as wages lost for being unable to work due to a workplace injury or illness; and
  • Employers’ liabilities are capped under a “no-fault” system of compensation.

The new Illinois law removes both the time limits from seeking compensation and the caps on employers’ liabilities.

Employers in Illinois now are subject to lawsuits under the new exceptions to the Workers’ Compensation and Workers’ Occupational Diseases Acts.

The new only affects Illinois employers. However, it clearly will affect employers’ liabilities as well as the cost of liability insurance premiums in Illinois.

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