NC Supreme Court Goes Awry in Workers’ Comp Case on Notice

In Gregory v. W.A. Brown & Sons, the North Carolina Supreme Court has at the very least made a simple area of the law very complicated, and at worst dealt a severe blow to injured workers with little legal justification.  At issue is the employee notice provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act, N.C.G.S. § 97-22, which requires injured employees to give written notice of their injury to their employer within 30 days unless the lack of notice did not harm the employer.  At issue in this case is whether the employee’s failure to provide written notice — even though she immediately told her supervisor about the injury, received a back brace, and was sent to human resources — should bar her from receiving any compensation.

This case should have been simple, since just in 2008, the Supreme Court (yes, the very same court) decided unanimously that an employer’s actual knowledge of an employee’s work-related injury satisfies the notice requirement under N.C.G.S. § 97-22, eliminating the need for any inquiry about alleged prejudice to the employer.  Richardson v. Maxim Healthcare/Allegis Group, 362 N.C. 657, 669 S.E.2d 582 (2008).  The majority in Gregory, however, goes through a number of contortions to distinguish the case from Richardson, and along the way effectively reviews findings of fact de novo, which appellate courts are supposed to be barred from doing.  The majority eventually holds, opaquely, that the Industrial Commission must make more specific findings and legal conclusions about the lack of prejudice to the employer before excusing notice, though it seems to implying that the appellate courts should not defer to any such conclusions.  Troubling to say the least.