Workers’ Comp and Notice of Injury

The Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act takes away from employees their right to sue their employer for injuries they suffer in the course and scope of their employment. But the loss of the right to sue is balanced by the strict liability that the Act imposes on employers. With few exceptions, when employees are injured while Working, they are automatically entitled to medical and income benefits structured in the Act. The injured employee need not prove that the employer was negligent, and any negligence or fault on the employee’s part does not reduce or eliminate the employee’s entitlement to benefits.

The Act has strict rules regarding how an employee must notify the employer of a work-related injury. In two recent cases, Pennsylvania workers succeeded on appeal when their notice of injury was challenged by their employers.

Thc first worker was employed at a steel plant, where her job was to run a machine that stretched and leveled steel plates. She was required to wear work boots that had steel through the foot area and up the ankle area of the boot. The steel work boot limited her ability to bend her foot and interfered with her bending down to check gauges on the machine. In 1994 and in 1998, she had foot and ankle surgery to correct nerve compression injuries. During her recovery at home from both surgeries, she received workers’ compensation wage and medical benefits. Several years later, after a third surgery and worsening problems with her feet and ankles, the employee quit. In early 2004, after additional surgery, she filed a claim for a work related injury, notifying her employer that she had been diagnosed as suffering from Morton’s neuroma, a nerve injury to her foot. The Act requires that employees notify employers within 120 days of the occurrence of a work related injury. However, where an injury goes undiagnosed, a worker can meet the Act’s notice requirements if the worker notifies the employer within 120 days of learning of the injury, Workers must exercise reasonable diligence in securing a diagnosis of a work-related injury. Further, where an ongoing injury is aggravated, or cumulative trauma causes an injury to recur, the 120-day period begins to run on the last day of the aggravation, which is normally the last day of work. Because the woman’s doctors all testified at her hearings that her Morton’s neuroma was work related and that her injury had been aggravated up to her last day of work, the court found that she had given timely notice when she notified her employer within 120 days of her last day of work.

Another employee whose injury notice was challenged also prevailed. The woman worked as an inspector at a factory that produced helmets for the U.S. Air Force. Her job required her to inspect the helmets thoroughly, and she handled hundreds of helmets a day. Each helmet weighed approximately nine pounds. After 45 years on the job, the woman had chronic pain and swelling in her hands. She sought medical treatment, and her doctor issued a note that she could not work due to the swelling in her hands. She applied for short-term disability benefits and described the injury as not work related on the disability application. She thought the swelling was from high blood pressure and fibromyalgia. When her doctor cleared her for light duty work and the factory had none, she was terminated. She did not ask for or receive workers’ compensation benefits, because she did not realize that her injuries were serious and work related.

The woman later sought treatment from a specialist who diagnosed her with carpal tunnel Syndrome in both wrists, tendonitis in several fingers, and multiple cartilage tears in her hands and fingers. He determined that the multiple injuries were caused by her years of work. The woman testified that when she received the more complete and serious diagnosis, she left multiple voice-mail messages on the telephone of the employer’s human resources department. The woman finally filed a workers’ compensation claim more than 18 months after her last day at Work. On appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the woman had not provided the employer with a perfect notice but that she had accomplished the “humanitarian’ goals of the Act when she promptly notified her employer by multiple telephone messages of her condition upon learning of the Work-related nature of her injuries,

Employees should protect their interests carefully by promptly notifying their employers in writing of any work-related injury. The notice should describe the date, time, location, and a description, “in ordinary language,” of the type of injury suffered. When an employee discovers through medical treatment and diagnosis that an old injury is work related, or that additional injuries exist, the employee should promptly give the employer additional notice, even if the employee is no longer employed. Employers should follow up on oral notices of injuries; the courts will sometimes find that an oral notice is adequate. Employers can limit claims by making sure that the details of the notice are preserved and documented.

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