Under Section 312 of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, an injured worker must provide notice to his or her employer that he or she “received an injury, described in ordinary language, in the course of his employment on or about a specified time, at or near a place specified.” This notice, under Section 311, must be given within 120 days of the injury, or the claim may be precluded. In reality, giving notice to an employer may not be so simple.
Take, for example, the facts in Gentex Corp. v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Morack), a decision recently rendered by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The injured worker toiled on an assembly line for many years, repetitively using her hands. Eventually, she began to have pain and swelling in her hands, and her fingers would become “stuck.”
Finally, on January 17, 2005, Ms. Morack told her boss that her hands were hurting so bad, she did not know what to do. The injured worker saw a doctor that same day and got a note keeping her out of work. According to the company policy, Ms. Morack called her employer every day for the first five days she was out, advising the employer each day that she could not work because of the swelling in her hands. She did not specifically tell the employer that the swelling was from her work duties, because she was not sure what caused the problem. A short-term disability application was made, indicating the condition was the result of “sickness” rather than “injury,” since, at that time, Ms. Morack believed her condition was related to pre-existing fibromyalgia, not her work duties.
Eventually, as she was being treated for her condition, Claimant was told by her doctor that she had bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, flexor tendonitis in the left thumb and left fourth finger, triggering in the left index finger, a right wrist cartilage tear, and right-sided DeQuervain’s tendonitis. The doctor told Ms. Morack that these problems were not related to the fibromyalgia, but were caused by the repetitive work duties. Unable to reach her employer by telephone, Ms. Morack left several messages stating that she had “work-related problems.” The employer, allegedly, was not aware of a workers’ compensation claim until a Claim Petition was filed in October, 2006.
A Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) found Claimant and her doctor credible and granted the Claim Petition. Specifically to the issue of notice, the WCJ found that she provided prompt notice when her doctor informed her of the problem being related to the work activities. The combination of what she told her supervisor on January 17, 2005, the short-term disability application, and the subsequent telephone messages were sufficient to provide notice under Section 312. This was affirmed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB).
The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania reversed the WCJ, however, finding that while the notice was timely under Section 311, it was not sufficient under Section 312. The short-term disability application indicated the problem was not work-related. Further, the voicemail message that Claimant had “work-related problems” was too vague to serve as proper notice. Even accepting the testimony of Ms. Morack as credible, which the Court must do, the testimony cannot support proper notice.
In a decision sure to be well-received by PA workers’ compensation attorneys (at least those of us who represent injured workers), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed the Commonwealth Court, and reinstated the award of workers’ comp benefits. An exact diagnosis is not required for there to be proper notice. Also, the conversation(s) between an injured worker and his or her employer is to be viewed in context; the notice need not be given within a single conversation. By its nature, this is a fact-sensitive area. The Supreme Court found that Commonwealth Court failed to fully consider the effect of what Claimant said to her employer on January 17, 2005. Given this information, the subsequent voicemail message, and the fact Claimant had not been at work since January 17, 2005, the employer should have been aware of a work injury. The Supreme Court also noted that “the humanitarian purpose of the (Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act) directs that ‘a meritorious claim ought not, if possible, be defeated for technical reasons.'” Under these circumstances, said the Supreme Court, deference should be given to the findings of the WCJ in such a fact-intensive inquiry.
Even more warming to the heart of lawyers representing injured workers in Pennsylvania is the concurring opinion filed by two of the Justices of the Supreme Court. In this concurring opinion, the Justices joined in the opinion of the majority, but wanted to chastise the employer for “inappropriate corporate conduct.” The Justices felt the company mistreated a longtime employee. Specifically, the Justices wrote:
“Rather than acknowledging the undisputed genesis of her injuries and paying her the due compensation, Genex opted to pursue a technical defense in the hope of avoiding its rightful obligations. It is unfortunate that someone in corporate management chose to pursue this regrettable course.”
Since we see such cold-hearted decisions by employers on a regular basis, we truly hope the enlightened words of the Supreme Court resonate throughout Corporate America.