A state workers’ compensation law requires employees to give proper notice of a workplace injury to employers to receive benefits. The question in this case: Did a series of communications between employee and employer add up to proper notice?
Anne Marie Morack worked for Gentex Corp. in Carbondale, PA for 45 years. She inspected the quality of helmets manufactured at the plant, which required her to lift nine pounds hundreds of times per day.
From 2003 to 2005, Morack suffered swelling and pain in her hands and her fingers would become stuck in certain positions.
On Jan. 17, 2005, Morack said the pain in her hands had become too much, and she informed her supervisor she could no longer tolerate it. She left work and saw a doctor the same day.
The doctor gave her a note excusing her from work which she delivered to Gentex that day.
Morack telephoned the company for the next five days to update Gentex on her condition, each day indicating she couldn’t work because of swelling in her hands.
Eventually, a rheumatologist diagnosed her with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, a right wrist cartilage tear and tendinitis in various fingers that were all work-related.
On March 24, 2005, the doctor released Morack to return to work with limitations of no repetitive lifting of more than one pound or standing for more than 45 minutes. Gentex didn’t have such a position, so Morack was let go.
When she found out her injuries were work-related, Morack immediately called Gentex’s human resources manager but was unable to reach her. Morack says she left many messages for HR but was never able to speak to anyone in the department.
Although the two sides disagree about details of Morack’s contact with HR, they agree Morack left at least one voice message for the HR manager in which she said she had “work-related problems.”
Morack was awarded benefits by a workers’ comp judge. The company appealed to the workers’ comp board which upheld the judge’s decision. Then the company appealed to a state court.
Gentex argued that Morack failed to properly notify it about her work-related injuries, including failing to adequately describe them. The court agreed Morack failed to adequately describe her injuries.
The case finally went to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
That court ruled Morack should receive workers’ comp benefits. The judges noted that on the first day Morack left work, she said it was because of hand pain. That, combined with her phone call to the HR Manager to report that her doctor said the injuries were work-related was enough for the court.
“While this scenario of providing notice was not ‘letter perfect,'” the court wrote in its opinion, “the humanitarian purpose of the [Workers’ Comp] Act directs that ‘a meritorious claim ought not, if possible, be defeated for technical reasons.'”
The court said the employee doesn’t have to give all the necessary information to the employer at one time. It said no one communication should be considered “in isolation.”
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(Gentex Corp. v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, Supreme Court of PA, No. 33 MAP 2010, 7/20/2011)