December 21, 2021 Article

Maine Supreme Court Affirms Decision in Workers’ Compensation Case Regarding Notice Requirements

Maine Workers' Comp Alert

In Desgrosseilliers v. Auburn Sheet Metal (2021 ME 63 [December 16, 2021]), the question presented is whether an employee is required to give notice of his occupational disease claim to his former employer’s insurer when the employer no longer exists.

Auburn Sheet Metal and its workers’ compensation insurer MEMIC appealed a decision (Goodnough, ALJ) finding that Desgrosseilliers, who was last injuriously exposed to asbestos during his employment with Auburn Sheet Metal in 1994 (insured by MEMIC), was not barred from pursuing his claim for an occupational disease by the notice provision, § 301. Section 301 reads, in relevant part:

For claims for which the date of injury is on or after January 1, 2013, and prior to January 1, 2020, proceedings for compensation under this Act, except as provided, may not be maintained unless a notice of the injury is given within 30 days after the date of injury....

The notice must be given to the employer, or to one employer if there are more employers than one; or, if the employer is a corporation, to any official of the corporation; or to any employee designated by the employer as one to whom reports of accidents to employees should be made. It may be given to the general superintendent or to the supervisor in charge of the particular work being done by the employee at the time of the injury. Notice may be given to any doctor, nurse, or other emergency medical personnel employed by the employer for the treatment of employee injuries and on duty at the work site. If the employee is self-employed, notice must be given to the insurance carrier or to the insurance carrier’s agent or agency with which the employer normally does business.

(Emphasis added.)

Desgrosseilliers asserted that, under the statute, he had no obligation to notify Auburn Sheet Metal’s insurer within 30 days of the date of injury or otherwise.

The ALJ found, Desgrosseilliers “was under a duty to demonstrate that notice was provided to the employer or insurer within 30 days of February 26, 2016.” (emphasis added). “However, section 301 describes in plain language those people or entities to whom an employee must give notice in various circumstances. The only situation in which the employer’s insurer is specified as the recipient of the required notice is when the employee is self-employed. There is no contention that Mr. Desgrosseilliers was self-employed. Thus … for the purposes of section 301 notice, employer does not include insurer, except where specified.”

The Appellate Division affirmed. “Here, we are presented with a case in which the employee was under an obligation to notify his former employer of his injury, but that obligation arose at a time when that employer no longer existed. The ALJ found as fact and there is no dispute that Auburn Sheet Metal was ‘long out-of-business’ by 2016. The company had been owned and operated by Desgrosseilliers’s former wife who, the ALJ noted, had ‘passed away a number of years ago.’” The Appellate Division held: “When providing the statutorily required notice to an employer is impossible, and there is no specific legislative directive that the employee notify an insurer, the failure to provide notice within the time constraints of section 301 cannot be held to bar a claim. The term ‘employer’ in section 301 does not include the employer’s insurer and does not impose an independent obligation to notify an employer’s insurer of an injury—except in the circumstance of a self-employed employee.”

On appeal, the Law Court affirmed the decision finding, “[b]ecause neither § 301 nor the Occupational Disease Law, §§ 601-615, require an employee to give notice of his occupational disease claim to his former employer’s insurer when the employer no longer exists….” In doing so, the Law Court rejected MEMIC’s assertion that the section 301 should be read as though it requires notice to the “employer or insurer.” Section 102(12) provides:

If the employer is insured, “employer” includes the insurer, self-insurer, or group self-insurer unless the contrary intent is apparent from the context or is inconsistent with the purposes of this Act.

The Law Court found this interpretation confusing because it would require the Court to adopt an implied and alternate meaning to the statutory language in certain cases, but not others.