Does an employee need to file a workers' compensation claim petition to successfully assert a wrongful discharge lawsuit against the employer?
The Commonwealth Court answered this question in the case of Owens v. Lehigh Valley Hospital decided November 7, 2014. The Court determined that a cause of action exists under Pennsylvania law for wrongful discharge where an employee reports a work injury to the employer and is paid short term disability benefits but does not file a Claim Petition with the Bureau.
Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state and, absent a contract, employees may be discharged with or without cause. An exception to this general rule was first recognized by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1974 when the Court held that an at-will employee might have a cause of action against an employer for wrongful discharge when that discharge threatens a clear mandate of public policy. Then, in 1998, the Supreme Court specifically held that an at-will employee who asserts that he or she was discharged in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim asserted a viable wrongful discharge claim.
In Owens, the employer paid the employee short term disability rather than workers' compensation benefits after the employee reported the injury. The employee alleged that once her short term disability ended, she was discharged due to an accumulation of claims for work-related injuries. The employee did not allege that she was discharged for a current claim but rather for past claims. The Commonwealth Court explained that if an employer can discharge an employee for a work related injury where the employee received payments in lieu of workers' compensation benefits rather than the compensation benefits administered by the Bureau, the public policy in the Workers' Compensation Act would be undermined. The Court pointed out that if this were the law, it would be an incentive for employers to steer employees away from filing workers' compensation petitions in order to retain the right to discharge the employee due to the injury. Accordingly, the Court held that a cause of action exists for wrongful discharge of an employee who makes a claim for workers' compensation benefits even without the filing of a Claim Petition.
Comment: While Pennsylvania is an at-will state, it is clear that an employee will have a viable lawsuit against the employer if the employer fires the employee for suffering a work injury, filing a claim petition for workers' compensation, or merely placing the employer on notice that he or she has suffered a work injury.
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Sara L. De Long