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Pennsylvania Court Finds Worker Suffering Cumulative Trauma Provided Employer Sufficient Notice of Injury

In a recent case before the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, the court addressed whether a workers’ compensation claimant provided sufficient and timely notice of his work injury to his employer. Since the claimant suffered a cumulative trauma from a previous job, he contended that he provided notice once he learned that the trauma was indeed work-related.  The court in this case highlighted the fact that the employer was on notice of the possibility that the trauma was work-related.

James Gahring petitioned for review of the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board’s adjudication denying his claim for benefits relating to his back injury. The Board affirmed the holding of the workers’ compensation judge that Mr. Gahring’s previous employer was not liable for the back injury, since the aggravation of the injury took place while he was working as a cook for Stoudt’s Brewing Company.  The workers’ compensation judge further held that Stoudt was not liable for the aggravation because they had not received timely notice of the injury. Mr. Gahring appealed the Board’s decision and argued that his notice to his supervisor at Stoudt that he was suffering back pain due to the increased hours was sufficient notice of a repetitive trauma under the Workers’ Compensation Act.

After suffering a work-related lower back injury in 1997, Mr. Gahring entered into a Compromise and Release Agreement with his employer, settling his claims for indemnity benefits for a work-related disc herniation and lower back pain.  Years later, Mr. Gahring worked as a line cook for Stoudt’s Brewing Company.  He experienced back pain and eventually underwent surgery.  His doctor released him to work with certain restrictions that Stoudt could not accommodate, and his employment was terminated.

Mr. Gahring filed multiple petitions against his first employer and against Stoudt. The workers’ compensation judge consolidated the petitions, finding that Mr. Gahring had suffered a work injury. The judge gave credit to Mr. Gahring’s medical expert, finding that the injury resulted from Mr. Gahring’s work as a line cook.  The petitions against the first employer were dismissed.

While the workers’ compensation judge found that Mr. Gahring had proved that he suffered a work-related aggravation of his previous back condition while working as a cook for Stoudt’s, they barred his claim.  The judge found that Mr. Gahring did not give timely notice of the aggravation.

The facts indicated that Mr. Gahring’s supervisor confirmed that Mr. Gahring had complained of back pain and had stated that the additional hours of work, due to another employee’s absence, made his back worse. Mr. Gahring’s physician testified about his treatment and opined that Mr. Gahring’s work at Stoudt aggravated his condition, which began years earlier.

While the Board found that Mr. Gahring’s condition worsened gradually as a result of his increased hours as a line cook, the Board affirmed the workers’ compensation judge’s holding that Stoudt was not on notice that Mr. Gahring’s work was causing his more recent back complaints.

Mr. Gahring argued on appeal that since he suffered a case of a cumulative trauma, his statements sufficiently put Stoudt on notice. He had informed his supervisor that the increased work hours were causing his worsening back pain.  Stoudt claimed that Mr. Gahring had not been specific about the time and place of his alleged back injury.

The court reviewed the law relating to an award of benefits.  The claimant must give the employer timely notice of the injury. Under the law, this means that the employer must be informed within 120 days of the occurrence of the work injury. In the case of cumulative trauma or aggravated injuries, the last day of employment is the critical date of injury for timely notice purposes.

In cases of cumulative trauma, the court noted that the connection to work duties may not be obvious. In this case, Mr. Gahring reported his increasing pain to his supervisor.  His supervisor testified that Mr. Gahring stated his back pain was due to the additional hours he was required to work. The court found that these statements sufficiently informed Stoudt of the possibility that the pain was work-related.  Both Mr. Gahring’s supervisor and Mr. Gahring believed the back problems were a recurrence of the earlier injury, until they learned otherwise.

The court reviewed the lower court’s order and remanded with instructions to remand to the workers’ compensation judge and then calculate the benefits owed to Mr. Gahring for his work-related back injury.

At Needle Law, our workers’ compensation attorneys help secure compensation for workers for their job-related injuries. We provide a free, confidential consultation. Contact the office today at 570-344-1266.

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