Do You Know the Rule? Tenn. ‘Discovery Rule’ for Gradually Occurring Injuries

15 Jan, 2024 Chris Parker


Employees must provide prompt notice of an injury if they are seeking workers’ compensation. However, if the injury develops over a long period of time, the employee might not know about it, might not know that it’s permanent, or might not know it’s work-connected, until it’s too late.

For that reason, Tennessee law provides that the notice period for such injuries does not start to run until the employee discovers or should have discovered the injury. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-201.

Notice requirement – in general

In Tennessee, an injured employee, if she hopes to obtain workers’ compensation benefits, must act promptly to notify heremployer of the injury.

Specifically, the employee must notify the employer within 15 days after the accident, or the injury will not be compensable.

There are two exceptions to the above rule:

(1) The employer had actual knowledge of the accident; or
(2) The employee convinces a workers’ compensation judge or other tribunal hearing that claim that she has a reasonable excuse for failing to give notice.

Contents of notice

In the notice, the employee must state in plain and simple language:

(1) The name and address of the employee; and
(2) The time, place, nature, and cause of the accident

In addition, the employee, or a person authorized to do so on the claimant's behalf, must sign the notice. If the employee died because of the accident, a dependent of the employee may sign.

Impact of defective notice

Despite the above requirements, a defect or inaccuracy in the notice won’t bar the employee from obtaining benefits unless the employer can show that it was prejudiced by the flawed notice.

Even if the employer can convince the workers' compensation judge that it was harmed by the defect, benefits will only be barred to the extent to which the employer was harmed.

‘Discovery rule’

In cases involving gradually occurring or cumulative injuries (e.g. hearing loss sustained over decades working in a noisy factory), an injured worker is required to provide notice of injury to her employer within fifteen days after the employee:

(1) Knows or reasonably should know that the employee has suffered a work-related injury that has resulted in permanent physical impairment; or
(2) Is rendered unable to continue to perform the employee's normal work activities as a result of the work-related injury and the employee knows or reasonably should know that the injury was caused by work-related activities.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-201(b)

Impact of discovery rule

As a practical matter, the rule means that employee who sustains a gradually occurring injury may not have to provide notice until a doctor diagnoses an injury. Typically, an employee is not deemed to know she has a permanent physical injury or that it’s work-related until she is informed a medical expert informs her of this.

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