Gentex Corporation v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Morack), No. 33 MAP 2010 (Pa. July 20, 2011)
Morack worked as a product inspector for Gentex Corporation for 45 years. She informed her supervisor on the day that she left work early that it was because of pain in her hands. She delivered a doctor’s excuse to the guardhouse according to policy and kept Gentex updated for the next five days by telephone. During this time, she completed a short-term disability form in which she indicated that she did not believe her disability was work-related.
When Morack learned from her doctor that her injury was indeed work-related, she left at least one telephone message for the human resources manager. Her doctor released her to return to work, with restrictions, but when no position was made available, she was terminated.
Morack received workers’ compensation benefits, and the award was affirmed on appeal to the Board. Gentex then appealed to Commonwealth Court which reversed based on its finding that Morack did not provide a reasonable description of her injury to her employer. Morack appealed to Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The question of whether Morack provided her employer with adequate notice of her injury in accordance with Section 312 of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act is a mixed question of law and fact. [Because statutory interpretation is a question of law, a de novo standard of review was applied to the construction of Section 312. -cv]
Section 312 of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act addresses the content of notice to an employer:
The notice referred to in section 311 shall inform the employer that a certain employe 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.
Noting that the statute is silent about the sufficiency of notice to an employer, the Court examined several cases, beginning with its 1979 opinion in Katz v. The Evening Bulletin. In Katz, the only time the Court interpreted Section 312, the court found that although the notice was not flawless, it satisfied the statute’s requirements. The Court reasoned that meritorious claims should not be defeated for technical reasons.
The Court concluded that a totality of the circumstances test should be applied to the determination of whether adequate notice has been given to an employer. A reasonably precise description is sufficient; an exact diagnosis is not required. In instances where a claimant does not immediately know the nature of his injury, a series of communications over time may be considered rather than a isolated conversation. The context and setting of the injury and communications are relevant.
Unlike the Commonwealth Court, the Court fully considered Morack’s communication to her supervisor the day she left. Finding that Morack provided adequate notice based on her collective communications with Gentex, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court.