In the case of Gahring v. WCAB (R and R Builders and Stoudt's Brewing Company) (Decided November 25, 2015), the Commonwealth Court has interpreted what constitutes sufficient notice of a cumulative trauma injury.
In 1997, Claimant sustained a work-related lower back injury that required surgery with a different Employer. In 2002, he entered into a Compromise and Release Agreement with that Employer which settled his claim for indemnity benefits for this injury. In 2010, Claimant began working for Stoudt’s as a line cook. In 2011, he began to experience increased back pain that culminated in surgery in November 2012. In January 2013, Claimant’s doctor released him to return to work with restrictions that his Employer could not accommodate, and thus, Claimant was terminated. In March 2013, Claimant filed a penalty petition against his original Employer for the original injury (thus, suggesting that his back problems and treatment stemmed from the 1997 injury) and filed a claim petition against Stoudt’s for a burn injury. Notably, no petition was filed against Stoudt’s for any back injury.
During the course of litigation, the Claimant’s 1997 Employer filed a joinder petition against Stoudt’s alleging that the Claimant’s back condition and medical treatment stemmed from a worsening of condition caused by his employment with his new Employer. The WCJ agreed and concluded that the Claimant had sustained an aggravation of his underlying condition while working at Stoudt’s but DENIED benefits as the Claimant did not provide adequate notice within the provisions of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act which require notice within 120 days of the injury.
Claimant appealed, claiming that notice was adequately provided. The Commonwealth Court agreed and remanded the case to the WCJ for calculation of benefits to be awarded. The Court was persuaded by the testimony of the Claimant and his supervisor that the notice was adequate. The testimony of the two witnesses established that Claimant’s supervisor was aware of Claimant’s longstanding back problems. The “notice” provided was that Claimant’s report of increasing back pain to his Supervisor, which Claimant correlated to working additional hours. The Court concluded that Claimant’s statements to his supervisor were enough to inform his Employer of “the possibility it was work-related,” even though Claimant never reported that he thought it was.
Thus, even with Claimants who have known pre-existing conditions, the mere mention that the pain is increasing coupled with any link to increased hours, duties, etc., may be sufficient notice under the Act. This is true even in cases where there is no suggestion whatsoever by the Claimant that he believes the problems to be work-related.