Finds “Flexibility” In Determining Repetitive Trauma Accident Date
Pinpointing the “accident date” in workers’ compensation cases involving gradual or repetitive trauma injuries has become more difficult following a recent Illinois Supreme Court decision. Overturning the Illinois Industrial Commission, the Circuit Court, and the Appellate Court, a 4-2 Su-preme Court majority held that an insurance company worker’s claim was not time barred even though she filed the claim more than three years after she first noticed symptoms arising from her work. Durand v. The Industrial Commission, No. 101109, Illinois Supreme Court (October 19, 2006).

Factual Background

Deanna Durand worked as a policy administrator for RLI Insurance Company. Her job duties included using a keyboard to enter data into a computer for roughly six hours per day and scanning documents. On January 29, 1998, Durand reported to her supervisor that she had been experiencing pain in her hands since September or October of 1997. She told her supervisor that she believed the symptoms were work-related. Durand also admitted during testimony that she presumed that she suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome.

Durand continued to perform her regular job duties but did not seek medical treatment until August 15, 2000, almost three years after she first noticed problems with her hands. She gave her physician an initial history of hand and wrist pain “off and on” for the previous one and a half years and related it to her work with a keyboard. A few weeks later, EMG testing was performed and showed evidence of nerve entrapment. Durand’s doctor subsequently rendered an opinion that her condition was work-related.

On January 12, 2001, Durand filed an application for adjustment of claim with the Illinois Industrial Commission. She alleged an accident date of September 8, 2000. The Industrial Commission denied the claim, finding an accident date in September or October 1997, and citing the statute of limitations (which provides that injured employees must file workers’ compensation claims “within 3 years after the date of the accident”). The Circuit Court and Appellate Court affirmed the rul-ing and Durand appealed.

Legal Analysis

Justice Thomas Fitzgerald, writing for the majority, first noted that employees suffering from repetitive trauma injuries must point to a “manifestation” date within the limitations period on which the injury and its causal link to the employee’s work became plainly apparent to a reasonable person. Courts have typically set the date as either the date on which the employee requires medical treatment or the date on which the employee can no longer perform work activities.

The court found that Durand had testified that she told her supervisor about the pain in her hands in September or October 1997. Even though she believed it was work-related at the time, the court noted, she didn’t know what it was. Thus, the court held that a reasonable person would not have known of Durand’s injury and its putative relationship to her work until 2000 when her pain necessitated medical treatment. Declining “to penalize an employee who diligently worked through progressive pain until it affected her ability to work and required medical treatment,” the court concluded that Durand’s claim was timely.

Practical Impact

According to Julia Donnelly, of counsel in Ogletree Deakins’ Chicago office: “This decision highlights the lack of definition inherent in cumulative or repetitive trauma legal analysis. Employers should be aware that repetitive trauma injuries will continue to be difficult to grasp and administer effectively. Solid accident reporting and documenting practices remain vitally important, though their ability to provide protection against ongoing liability potential is limited by the `flexibility’ Illinois courts have reserved in determining when a repetitive trauma accident has occurred.”  

Note: This article was published in the Dec/Jan 2007 issue of the Illinois eAuthority.

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