The Nebraska Court of Appeals held that waiting 38 days to report a work injury was enough delay in reporting to dismiss a workers’ compensation claim. Though what constitutes timely notice is a case by case determination, the Bauer v. Genesis Health Care case is troubling for workers for many reasons.
- Fear of retaliation not an excuse for not reporting injury – In the Bauer case the employee was worried about his job security and testified this one reason he delayed reporting his work injury. The suspicions about termination weren’t unfounded as the employee as put on leave 10 days after his injury. The Nebraska Court of Appeals disregarded this argument and found the plaintiff would have still been able to report his injury.
- Change in personal plans can trigger duty to report work injury – The law requires that an employee report an injury as soon as practicable. “As soon as practicable” can vary by the circumstances. The key fact is that the employee knows something could be wrong because of a work injury. In this case the fact the employee cancelled a personal trip a week after the work injury was one fact that persuaded the court the that plaintiff did not report his injury as soon as practicable.
- Stricter reporting standards for medical personnel – The court thought it was relevant that the injured worker was a physical therapy assistant was relevant to their conclusion that the employee did not report their injury as soon as practicable. Their theory was that professional knowledge should have lead him to conclude he needed treatment and that the injury should be reported. I wouldn’t be surprised to see insurers and their attorneys try to broaden this argument to all types of medical personnel.
- Change in work duties can trigger duty to report – The Bauer case was unusual in that since he was a manager he could place himself on light duty without asking permission. Usually asking for light duty would be enough notice for an employee to meet the notice requirement. But since Bauer didn’t ask, he didn’t put his employer on notice about his injury. Employees who work with co-workers to change job duties to accommodate a work injury may be vulnerable to having their workers’ compensation cases dismissed for lack of notice, if they don’t report a work injury to a supervisor soon after their duties change.
Other takeaways from Bauer
- Referral to specialist probably triggers a duty to report — Bauer cited to Williamson v. Werner, where the court held that an employee should have reported their injury to their employer after they reported it to their doctor. That didn’t happen in Bauer as the employee denied he was hurt at work at his first two medical visits. The court thought it was relevant that at the first visit after the work injury that he was referred for an MRI and to a specialist, yet did not report his injury to his employer.
- Appearances matter – Bauer had some other bad facts working against him: 1) He didn’t report his work injury until after he had been placed on leave and 2) He twice denied that he was hurt at work to providers. The court stated an employee who provides proper notice of an injury is one that is acting in good faith or honestly. Changes in stories about how an accident happened or irregularities in reporting don’t create an impression of good faith even if they can be explained. But if fear of termination is the explanation of why an employee doesn’t report a work injury, the Bauer decision indicates Nebraska courts won’t consider that factor.
- How the fear of retaliation harms workers’ compensation and retaliation claims – The Bauer case represents a common situation where an employee doesn’t turn in a work injury over fear of retaliation. Workers’ compensation retaliation is unlawful, but it is difficult for an injured worker to claim retaliation if they don’t report their work injury. So fear of retaliation can undermine both a workers’ compensation claim and a retaliation claim.