The Doctrine of Laches is not typically seen in the workers’ compensation setting. However, the California Supreme Court in Kaiser v. WCAB (Martin), (1985) 39 Cal.3d 57 did note that a lien claim may be barred by laches, thereby allowing a laches defense in a workers’ compensation case. In addition, the WCAB allowed a laches defense to a Serious and Wilful claim in Hurtado v. First Metals & Chemicals, (1998) 27 Cal. Workers’ Comp. Rptr. 44. So, what exactly is the Doctrine of Laches?
The Court in Butler v. Holman, (1956) 146 Cal.App.2d 22 described Laches as an unreasonable delay in asserting a right, which causes prejudice for an adverse party if assertion of the right is permitted. When the Court disallows assertion of a right under a Laches theory, the Court is exercising its equity powers independent of any statute of limitations. In Latta v. Western Inv. Company, (1949) 173 F.2d 99, the Court states that equity frowns upon stale demands and declines to aide those who have slept on their rights.
Recently, I was able to utilize a Laches theory for purposes of arguing for a dismissal in a Serious and Wilful claim. Briefly, a Serious and Wilful claim was timely filed in 2002. The underlying workers’ compensation claim settled in 2004, but the settlement documents specifically noted that the Serious and Wilful claim was not being settled by the Compromise and Release. Some six years later in 2010, applicant’s attorney sent a demand letter to the employer for $50,000 for resolution of the Serious and Wilful claim. Based on the above noted timeline, defendants were able to show not only a delay, but unreasonable one at that. However, defendants were also required to show that they were prejudiced by the unreasonable delay.
To show prejudice, it was argued that the machine in which the applicant injured herself was no longer available for inspection. In addition, the site at which the incident occurred was closed down and applicant’s direct supervisor had passed away. It was argued that key witnesses were unavailable and even if they could be located, their memories very likely had faded. These were the facts that supported the prejudicial prong of the Laches theory.
The Presiding Judge stated that he was inclined to dismiss the Serious and Wilful claim under the Laches Doctrine. Applicant’s attorney’s $50,000 demand was reduced to $2,500 and the case settled.
Although this is a very uncommon defense in the workers’ compensation setting, it may be worth raising if the facts are otherwise against you.