Smile Alvarez worked as an International Service Manager for Continental Airlines. He flew to Quito, Ecuador on October 21, 2001 and went to check his door to make sure it was in the disarm position. On entering the airplane’s galley, he tripped and did a near somersault, striking his head, shoulders and neck on the airplane’s floor. He refused to seek medical treatment in Ecuador. Instead, he soaked in the hotel hot tub because he felt sore.
When he returned to the United States, he did not treat at Continental’s Whole Health Clinic in Newark. He had planned an extended leave of absence to care for his ill mother and therefore took his leave. He noticed sharp pain radiating down his left arm while on leave. His hand was also numb.
In April 2002, Alvarez returned to his job in Houston, Texas. He was unable to check in for a series of day flights because the pain in his arm was intolerable. He saw a doctor at Continental’s Whole Health Clinic who gave him ibuprofen and sent him home. He then went on sick leave and did not return to work for almost a year.
On April 12, 2002, Alvarez saw Dr. Diaz, a neurologist, who ordered an MRI, which showed a herniated disc. He filed a workers’ compensation claim in Texas on April 19, 2002. Continental denied that claim for failure to timely report an injury, or lack of timely notice.
On July 6, 2002, Alvarez underwent cervical fusion surgery. Later in the month he filed a workers’ compensation claim in New Jersey asserting that he was injured on October 21, 2001.
Respondent filed a motion to dismiss the claim for lack of timely notice but the Judge of Compensation denied the motion. Alvarez testified three times: twice before the initial Judge of Compensation and a third time on December 14, 2012 before a second Judge of Compensation, who took over the case after the retirement of the first judge.
On January 25, 2013, the Judge of Compensation dismissed the case for failure to provide timely notice. Petitioner appealed and argued that his delay in notifying the employer about his accident should be excused because he had been unaware of the causal link between the accident and the injuries he sustained. The Appellate Division disagreed with petitioner, noting that the New Jersey Workers Compensation Act requires an employee to notify the employer of an injury at the latest within 90 days. The court further stated:
N.J.S.A. 34:15-17 ‘serves to insulate employers from having to investigate an onslaught of passing accidents that do not result in injury and therefore do not constitute accidents under the statute.’
The Court added:
While the symptomatology emanating from Alvarez’s fall may have worsened over time, Alvarez was aware of the injury he incurred from the moment he struck his head, shoulders, and neck in the airplane galley. Such injuries are wholly distinct from their latent and insidious progressive counterparts that prey upon their victims without any prior indication that they were even exposed to injury.
The lesson for practitioners is that the notice defense is viable in New Jersey. It is a very generous defense in that the employee may be sometimes allowed up to 90 days to notify the employer of injury. The converse is that the employer does not have to prove that the employee knew his diagnosis for the notice defense to be invoked. For the employer to win a notice defense, the employer must show only that a reasonable person would know he or she was injured in the accident and failed to provide notice within the 90-day period.
The case can be found at Alvarez v. Continental Airlines, A-3039-12T3 (App. Div. October 18, 2013).