No longer will employers be entitled to rely on the Illinois workers’ compensation exclusive remedy protections to prohibit civil actions filed 25 years or more after a worker’s alleged exposure. On May 17, 2019, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law Senate Bill 1596, which allows tort claims to be filed after the state’s occupational-disease 25-year time bar expires. Effective immediately, the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act and Illinois Occupational Disease Act no longer prohibit workers diagnosed with latent diseases from pursuing their claims after the 25-year statute of repose.
According to a statement from his office, Gov. Pritzker signed this bill into law because the 25-year statute of repose was shorter than the medically recognized time period in which some diseases, including asbestos-related illnesses, are known to manifest.
SB 1596 was enacted in response to the Illinois Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Folta v. Ferro Engineering. 2015 IL 118070, 43 N.E.3d 108 (2015). In Folta, the court held that the state’s workers’ compensation and occupational disease law imposed a 25-year statute of repose on both workers’ compensation and tort law claims brought by people diagnosed with latent diseases after exposure to toxic substances such as asbestos, radiation, and beryllium in the workplace. Id. Further, the court held that these Acts were the exclusive remedy to Illinois employees who suffered from latent injuries. Id. at ¶ 12, 6-7.
Illinois law clearly states that the purpose of a repose period is to terminate the possibility of liability after a defined period of time. Id. at ¶ 33, 116. However, this new law removes the statute of repose language from the Acts and affirmatively excludes latent injuries from the exclusive remedy provisions.
While the bill contains no mention of retroactivity, the question of whether its enactment revives certain tort law claims remains unanswered. Illinois courts generally frown upon retroactive applicability and enforcement when a piece of legislation is silent on the issue. But some speculate that the absence of any retroactive language means that this law will not affect certain claims until 2044. While the impact of this legislation remains to be seen, what can be expected is litigation surrounding this issue in the near future.
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