Rhame v. Charleston County – Repetitive Trauma Work Injury Claim Within Statutory Limitations

The South Carolina Court of Appeals recently issued a ruling in favor of a school district worker who suffered a repetitive motion injury. Previously, the workers’ compensation commission ruled the statute of limitations had run out on his case, but the appellate court reversed.acfan

In Rhame v. Charleston County School District, plaintiff had worked as a heating and air conditioning technician for the district for more than 20 years, from 1987 to 2009. His work often required that he lift equipment that weighed as much as 100 pounds.

Starting in 1994, he began to experience on-and-off back pain. He also developed problems with his neck and had to undergo cervical fusion surgery. After talking about his health issues with someone at the district, he was told the district would not provide benefits for these problems – even though they were work related. The district later sent a formal denial letter for neck injury benefits. 

Then in 2009, he filed a claim for benefits with the district relative to a back injury he sustained as a result of repetitive heavy lifting of air conditioning units. The district denied he had sustained an injury by work accident, accused him of not complying with the Workers’ Compensation Act notice requirements and asserted the claim was barred by the statute of limitations.

The district indicated worker should have known as far back as 1994 that he was having work-related back pain and should have brought a claim for benefits then.

South Carolina workers’ compensation statute of limitations, per S.C. Code 42-15-40, is two years from the day of injury accident or diagnosis of disease. Where repetitive trauma injury is alleged, claimant has two years form the date he or she knew or should have known the injury was compensable.

Claimant attributed the delay to:

  • Back pain being on-and-off,thus never a single identifiable injury;
  • Fear of losing his job;
  • Ability to complete work-related duties not being affected until 2009;
  • Ignorance of the workers’ compensation system in general and repetitive trauma injuries in particular until 2009.

Initially, the single commissioner hearing the case in 2010 ruled the claim wasn’t barred by the statute of limitations and awarded medical benefits and temporary total disability.

School district requested review by a full appellate panel. That review was granted and the single commissioner’s ruling reversed, finding claimant was “aware” of his “back injury” years earlier, and failed to file his claim within two years of when he knew or should have known the injury was compensable. Further, the panel indicated claimant “showed awareness” of the workers’ compensation system when he tried to file a claim for his neck injury in 2006 and also when he indicated his delay was out of fear he might lose his job.

Claimant sought a rehearing from the panel, which was rejected, and he proceeded to appeal to the South Carolina Court of Appeals. Initially, the appellate court refused to hear the case, finding the notice of appeal wasn’t filed within 30 days of the panel’s decision. Claimant appealed this to the state supreme court which remanded for reconsideration and the appeals court decided to hear the case.

In its reversal, the court noted that repetitive trauma injuries are difficult to pinpoint because there isn’t a specific date or time when they occur. There was no substantial evidence in this case that plaintiff suffered a back injury in 1994. The record does indicate he began to experience back pain at that time, but there is no evidence of a back injury.

The panel further noted that while this pain was ongoing and while plaintiff knew it was work-related, he continued to work that same job for 15 more years, never missing work and never placed on any restrictions.

Appeals court ruled the panel erred in finding claimant failed to file his claim within the statute of limitations.

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

Additional Resources:

Rhame v. Charleston County School District, Dec. 9, 2015, South Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:

Report: The Rise of Cost Containment Industry in Workers’ Comp., Jan. 2, 2015, Rock Hill Workers’ Compensation Attorney Blog

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