Workers’ Compensation Case at Dodson Lumber Mill Shows Importance of Reporting a Work-Related Injury in a Timely Fashion

Louisiana workers’ compensation law creates a system that provides medical treatment and monetary income to employees who suffer injuries while on the job. The law is designed to benefit both employees and employers. Workers are protected against the difficulties that result from job-related injuries such as the expenses of medical care and lost wages from being unable to work. An injured employee can receive bi-weekly income payments and free medical treatment, but must forfeit any right he may otherwise have under the law to sue his employer over the injury. The employer benefits by avoiding a potentially costly and unpredictable lawsuit in exchange for accepting limited liability under the structured system that seeks to protect the interests of both parties. Under this system, the issue of fault or negligence is not at issue—it is enough for the employee to show that he suffered an injury while performing work for his employer.

One important procedural obligation on the part of an injured worker is that he must report the injury to his employer in a timely manner. According to Louisiana statute,

No [claim] for compensation shall be maintained unless notice of injury has been given to the employer within thirty days after the date of the injury or death. This notice may be given or made by any person claiming to be entitled to compensation or by anyone on his behalf. La. R.S. 23:1301.

Although notice is always required, the 30-day window is not absolutely inflexible. Louisiana statute further provides:

A notice given under [the workers’ compensation law] shall not be held invalid or insufficient by reason of any inaccuracy in stating the time, place, nature, or cause of the injury, or otherwise, unless it is shown that the employer was in fact misled to his detriment thereby. Lack of notice or delay in giving notice shall not be a bar to proceedings … if it is shown that the employer, or his agent or representative, had knowledge of the accident or that the employer has not been prejudiced by such delay or lack of notice. La. R.S. 23:1305.

The sufficiency of notice given well outside of the 30-day statutory window was central to the case of Hammock v. Weyerhaeuser, 917 So. 2d 733 (La. App. 2005). In this case, David Hammock worked at the Weyerhaeuser lumber mill in Dodson, Louisiana. Hammock’s job required him to move 3,000-pound loads of wood from a conveyor belt to a stacking machine using a motorized buggy. In August, 2002, a load of wood fell off the stacking machine; Hammock and a co-worker were then required to manually move the load back onto the machine. Hammock claimed that in the course of this operation, he felt “a popping in [his] lower back and a tingling in [his] legs.” Hammock did not report the incident, but mentioned to his co-worker that he thought he felt “something” in his back. Over the next several months, Hammock told other co-workers about the incident and complained about back pain but did not make a formal report the incident until January 6, 2003. In his report, he wrote “do not know” in the field for “Date of Accident” and wrote “3 mos. ago” in the field for “Time of Accident.” Weyerhaeuser disputed that Hammock’s injury was work-related and sought to avoid providing Hammock with workers’ compensation benefits in part based on the late notice of injury.

At the hearing before the Workers’ Compensation Judge (“WCJ”), Hammock testified that one of the reasons he didn’t immediately report his injury is that he worried it would prevent him from being offered a promotion. Further, Hammock feared that a reported injury might lead to the closure of the Dodson plant. The WCJ concluded that Hammock “was, in fact, involved in a work-related accident.” And that his “perception that the reporting of accidents was unfavored by [Weyerhaeuser] had a plausible basis and it cannot be used to preclude workers’ compensation benefits.” The WCJ ordered Weyerhaeuser to pay benefits to Hammock, awarded him attorneys fees, and required Weyerhaeuser to pay a $2,000 penalty for unreasonably denying Hammock’s claim. Weyerhaeuser appealed the WCJ’s decision to the Louisiana Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal confirmed that under Louisiana law, “a plaintiff in a workers’ compensation action has the burden of establishing a work-related accident” Graham v. Nissan 907 So. 2d 213 (La. App. 2005). After reviewing the statute that requires an injured worker to give his employer notice of an injury within 30 days, the court explained that a delay in reporting an injury is “not fatal to a claim” for benefits. “This is especially true,” the court continued, “when the delay is of a relatively short duration.”

The court acknowledged that Hammock’s reporting delay was “not of a short duration,” and further found Hammock’s fear of retaliation by Weyerhaeuser was not justified. Nevertheless, the court conceded that his worry the accident would be held against him was a “genuine and honest explanation for his failure to report the incident for three months.” The court concluded that “despite the extended delay in reporting the accident, [Hammock] carried his burden of proving that he suffered a compensable injury as a result of a work-related accident,” and affirmed the award of compensation by the WCJ.

Although the court’s ruling ultimately turned out favorably for Mr. Hammock, this case demonstrates the critical nature of the worker’s responsibility to report an injury within a reasonable time. Had Mr. Hammock reported his injury to Weyerhaeuser within 30 days of the incident, he would likely have received his benefits without the need for a lengthy judicial process that concluded more than three years after the injury occurred.

If you have been injured on the job, talk to an attorney who can help you understand your rights and responsibilities under the workers’ compensation law and help you get the benefits your deserve without delay.

Call the Berniard Law Firm right away toll-free at 1-866-574-8005.

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