PA Workers’ Comp Recognizes Carpal Tunnel Syndrome can be Cumulative Trauma or Repetitive Stress Injury

In Liveringhouse v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, decided on March 19, 2009, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania reversed the decision of a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ), which denied claimant’s Petition to Review. In this case, the injured worker filed her Petition to Review to add carpal tunnel syndrome to her accepted PA work injury.

The WCJ denied that Claimant suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome at all. Since all three medical experts testified (two for the workers’ compensation insurance carrier) that Claimant did have carpal tunnel syndrome, the Court found that the decision of the WCJ was defective. “It is well settled that a WCJ is not competent to make independent medical determinations.” The WCJ also erroneously stated that the injured worker never testified that she had to twist using her pliers, when in fact the record showed such evidence. Still, the two doctors who testified for the workers’ compensation insurance carrier found that the carpal tunnel syndrome was not work-related.

One of those doctors based his opinion primarily on his belief that carpal tunnel syndrome “could be related to job duties only when the jobs involve the use of significant vibratory tools over long periods of time.” In what would normally seem to be a determination of credibility, made solely by a WCJ, the Court found this opinion completely defective. Specifically, the Court stated, “Courts consistently have regarded carpal tunnel syndrome as a condition that arises as a classic cumulative trauma or repetitive stress injury that may result from use of the hands in a variety of job settings, and they have never limited benefits for carpal tunnel to cases involving use of ‘significant vibratory tools’ over long periods.”

The other doctor testifying for the workers’ compensation insurance carrier refused to give an opinion regarding cumulative trauma or repetitive stress, saying he would only give opinions regarding an injury which may have occurred on a specific date. As such, the Court found the WCJ erred by using this testimony to counter other medical evidence that the work duties did lead to the carpal tunnel syndrome. Ultimately, the Court “vacated” the decision of the WCJ, and “remanded” the case back to the WCJ, for the WCJ to issue another decision, consistent with the proper legal standards.

Given the pronouncement of the Court that “carpal tunnel syndrome (is) a condition that arises as a classic cumulative trauma or repetitive stress injury that may result from use of the hands in a variety of job settings,” PA workers’ compensation insurance company doctors (“Independent Medical Examiners” or IMEs) may now have a more difficult time testifying that repetitive work duties cannot cause carpal tunnel syndrome. This is a victory for attorneys who represent injured workers in PA workers’ comp cases.