The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has dramatically increased the liability of employers for their employees’ latent occupational diseases based on its interoperation of the word “it.”  In the November 22, 2013 decision in Tooey v. AK Steel Corp.,the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stripped the protections of the Pennsylvania Worker’s Compensation Act for latent occupational diseases that manifest more than 300 weeks after employment ends.

The Pennsylvania Worker’s Compensation Act has an exclusivity provision that prohibits employees from bringing civil lawsuits against employers for injuries and diseases that are covered. According to the Act: “whenever occupational disease is the basis for compensation, for disability or death under this act, it shall apply only to disability or death resulting from such disease and occurring within three hundred weeks after the last date of employment.”

In Tooey, two former employees sued their employer for workplace asbestos exposure more than 300 weeks after their last date of employment.  The key issue for the Court boiled down to the interpretation of one word—“it”— in the Act. After a lengthy discussion of the rules of grammar and semantics, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania sided with the employees and held that the word “it” refers to the Act—and not to compensation as the employer argued.  Thus the Act only applies to diseases occurring within 300 weeks, and the exclusivity provision of the Act did not bar the employees’ claims.

This decision now allows former employees with occupational diseases to sue their employers directly for diseases that manifest more than 300 weeks after employment ends.  While some other provisions of Pennsylvania law may limit Tooey’s holding, it is clear that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision has shifted the ground on which latent disease cases are litigated against former employers.