Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules on Notice to Employer of a Worker’s Injury

The July 2011 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in Gentex Corp. v. Morack addressed the issue of the degree of specificity that an employee needs to use when giving an employer notice of a workplace injury. The court ruled that an employee can meet the statutory requirement of notice to an employer of a workplace injury even if the notice of the injury occurs over time through a series of communications. This form of notice is acceptable when the employee is not immediately aware of the nature of the injury or is uncertain that the injury is work-related. This case illustrates the difference between the workers’ compensation system and a personal injury lawsuit in compensating those who are injured.

Purpose of Workers’ Compensation

The workers’ compensation system is a set of laws governing what happens when employees are injured on the job. The laws require that employers carry workers’ compensation insurance so that if an employee sustains a work-related injury, the employer can pay the employee part of his or her wages during the recovery period as well as the bills for the medical treatment that the employee needs. Workers’ compensation is a no-fault system, which means that in order to recover benefits an employee does not need to show that the employer did anything to cause the injury – merely that the injury was work-related.

Workers’ compensation laws took away the ability of employers to argue that they did not have to pay for employees’ injuries because the employees assumed the risk of injury by taking the job or that the employer does not have to pay because the negligence of another employee caused the injury. This differs from a typical personal injury lawsuit, where a plaintiff needs to show that the defendant was in some way negligent and that negligence was the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Also, in a personal injury lawsuit, a defendant can raise the defense that the plaintiff assumed the risk of the injury by doing a certain activity, that the plaintiff’s own negligence contributed to the injury or that another party’s negligence caused the injury.

In exchange for not having to prove that the employer was negligent in order to obtain benefits, however, an employee gives up the right to sue the employer and collect compensation for such things as pain and suffering. Workers’ compensation laws clearly delineate the types of benefits available to injured employees. This is also different from a personal injury lawsuit, wherein a plaintiff may seek damages for a range of losses.

Third Party Lawsuits

An injured employee may still bring a lawsuit against a third party in certain circumstances. For example, if the employee suffered an injury at work due to a defective product, he or she may bring a product liability suit against the product manufacturer in addition to making a workers’ compensation claim.

Third party liability can also involve subcontractors, such as on a construction site. If a negligence of a third party caused an injury, the injured person may not be limited to workers’ compensation.

Pursuing a Work Comp Claim

Workers’ compensation laws outline the procedures that injured employees need to follow in order to collect benefits. Under Pennsylvania Law, one of the first things that employees must do is notify the employer “that a certain employee 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” within 21 days of the injury.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Gentex decision helped to clarify what constitutes sufficient notice. The employee in the case left work one day due to pain, stiffness and swelling in her hands, that left her unable to work. She sought medical treatment and did not return to work for five days. She kept her employer informed of her condition but did state that she did not believe it to be work-related.

Over a year later, after continued pain in her hands and treatment with a specialist, the employee learned that she had carpal tunnel syndrome, which was caused by her job duties. She then filed for workers’ compensation benefits. The employer argued that the employee failed to give notice of the workplace injury within the 21 days specified by statute.

The court reasoned, however, that although the notice was not “letter perfect,” the employee kept her employer notified about her condition and updated her employer as soon as she learned that the injury was work related, even though she learned the fact long after the statutory time allowed.

The Gentex decision shows that the workers’ compensation system is designed to help injured workers and, as the court stated in its opinion, an injured employee should not lose his or her benefits due to a technicality.