Proving Causation of Musculoskeletal Work Injuries

A recent case out of Illinois, Caterpillar Logistics, Inc. v. Soli, arose from a worker who alleged her musculoskeletal injury was the result of the repetitive motion required by her work duties.
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While our Asheville workers’ compensation attorneys recognize that the core issue in this case was whether the company properly reported the injury to the Department of Labor, as required for any work-related injury, the back-and-forth in the courts illustrates how complex it can be to demonstrate the source of an injury. This is particularly true when the injury is chronic, as opposed to acute.

For example, a worker who suffers an on-the-job fall that results in a broken leg can fairly easily file a claim. The source of the injury is rather straightforward.

However, a chronic condition, particularly musculoskeletal conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome or degenerative disc disease, may be no less the result of work than the fall. Proving it, however, can be an uphill march because there is no one singular event to which a plaintiff may point. There is also the possibility that such conditions may have arisen as a result of some other action or event.

Defendants in these cases will fight hard to show your injury was caused by something other than work. If they can’t convince the court that the injury was caused by something else entirely, they will seek to minimize their own liability to whatever extent possible by suggesting work may have aggravated the condition, but was not the true source.

Plaintiffs bear the burden of proof in these cases, which is why securing the services of an experienced attorney will be key to a successful claim.

In the Caterpillar case, a worker for the global supply firm developed a condition called epicondylitis, also sometimes referred to as “tennis elbow” or “golfer’s elbow” though most cases are unrelated to sports. The employee’s job in the company’s packing department required that she take boxes out of containers and place them into boxes for purposes of shipping. It is a position that requires repetitive motions of the hand and turning of the wrists, shoulders and elbows.

Although the worker’s injury was central to the case, the question was whether the company had a duty to report the matter to labor officials. The company had gathered a five-person board that concluded that while repetitive motion can cause epicondylitis, some level of force is also required, Repetitive motion alone, they concluded, would not have caused the condition.

Nowhere in the medical documentation was it stated that the employee’s position entailed the kind of force that the panel suggested would have been necessary to cause the condition. As such, the panel chose not to report the injury.

Subsequently, labor officials took the company to court. In a hearing before an administrative law judge, the Secretary of Labor offered up one witness, a clinical professor of medicine. He testified that the packing department would have been a light-force environment, but that work-related moderate repetition plus rotations of the wrist, forearm and hand, which were likely the cause of the employee’s condition.

The company, meanwhile, offered up several expert witnesses who referenced epidemiological studies that concluded there was no connection between repetitive motion and epicondylitis, absent motion-entailed force. They also offered up the company’s own history, in which no other worker in that department had reported such a condition.

The court sided with the government.

That decision was appealed, and the appellate court vacated and remanded the case on the grounds that the lower court had accepted the minority view within the medical profession without attempting to reconcile this view with the evidence at hand. In other words, the labor department failed to prove its case.

Again, while this case doesn’t directly involve the worker, it’s noteworthy in that it shows the kind of proof required to establish causation of a work injury, particularly when the condition is chronic. Simply showing up with a diagnosis or witness is not going to be enough. Medical records, doctors’ testimony, published research, company history, co-worker injuries – all of these elements may prove relevant in establishing causation.

If you have been injured at work in North Carolina, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Caterpillar Logistics, Inc. v. Soli, Dec. 12, 2013, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh cuit

More Blog Entries
Aggravation of Pre-Existing Condition Covered Under Workers’ Compensation, Dec. 15, 2013, Asheville Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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