By: James B. Sherman, Esq. & Phoebe A. Taurick, Esq.
Most employers have policies that require employees to promptly report workplace injuries. Many such policies provide that violations are grounds for discipline. However, a federal court in Minnesota held that an employer unlawfully retaliated against an employee when it suspended him for reporting a work-related injury six days after the injury, rather than on the same day the injury occurred. The lesson employers should take from this case is that relying on existing workplace injury reporting policies may not always provide a defense to retaliation claims and assessing each situation independently can potentially avoid liability.
In this case, the employee thought that he had merely aggravated an existing injury, and claimed it was not until he got an MRI several days later that he realized that he had in fact sustained a new injury. When he reported the injury following the MRI, the employer suspended him for failing to promptly report the injury on the same day it occurred, as required by company policy. As there was no doubt that the employee did, in fact, sustain the injury on the job (in contrast with the situation where an employee claims to have sustained a workplace injury, but evidence suggests that the injury really occurred away from work), the court held that under these circumstances, the injury report the employee submitted must have been a "contributing factor" to his 15-day suspension.
Although this case arose under the Federal Railroad Safety Act, employees who do not work in the railroad industry are similarly protected under state worker's compensation law among other laws, from retaliation for reporting workplace injuries. The court noted that cases in which employees are disciplined pursuant to injury reporting rules require "careful scrutiny," because the timeliness of a report of an injury is so closely connected to the act of making the report itself. Rather than strict application of blanket policies, a better practice is to look at the facts of each situation on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the employee had good reason for the delay in reporting the injury.