south carolina 4047531 1280

S.C. Top Court Rejects Relevancy of Ergonomics Report on Repetitive Stress Claim

17 Apr, 2024 Frank Ferreri

south carolina 4047531 1280
                               

Columbia, SC (WorkersCompensation.com) -- Can an ergonomics report determine whether an employee suffered a repetitive stress injury without any evidence from a doctor to weigh in on the individual nuances of a claim?

According to the South Carolina Supreme Court in Brookes v. Benore Logistics Systems, Inc., No. 28198 (S.C. 04/10/24), the statistical conclusions of an ergonomics report are not enough to establish whether repetitive stress caused a worker's injury.

A worker suffered what he believed to be a work-related repetitive trauma injury to his back and sought workers' compensation benefits. The worker's job involved moving semitruck trailers and ocean freight containers to various points in a shipping yard at a manufacturing plant. This work required the worker to perform the same series of tasks at least 30 times per shift, or once every 24 minutes.

Instead of having its doctors treat the worker, the employer commissioned an ergonomics report, which: 1) examined the general physical risks to which the worker may have been exposed at his job; and 2) concluded that the worker's injury was statistically unlikely to have been caused by his work activities.

A commissioner ruled in the worker's favor, but an appellate panel of the Workers' Compensation Commission reversed and instead relied on the ergonomics report. The court of appeals reversed that decision, holding that any reliance on the ergonomics report was impermissible.

The employer appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Under South Carolina law, "repetitive trauma injury" means an injury that is gradual in onset and caused by the cumulative effects of repetitive traumatic events. A repetitive trauma injury is considered to arise out of employment only if it is established by medical evidence that there is a direct causal relationship between the condition under which the work is performed and the injury.

According to the court, which ruled in the worker's favor, in terms of a claim for a repetitive trauma injury, ergonomics evidence may have some relevance in determining whether a particular job is "repetitive," but it has no relevance and is inadmissible on the issue of causation.

Additionally, the court found ample evidence that the worker's job involved a "series of events ... occurring regularly, continuously, or at frequent intervals ... over extended periods of time," so as to meet the South Carolina's definition of "repetitive."

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In so ruling, the court cleared up what it saw as lacking judicial guidance on the issue of repetitive jobs in South Carolina.

"The appellate courts in our state seem to have never wrestled with whether a job was repetitive," the court wrote. "Rather, in discussion the facts of a repetitive trauma injury case, the appellate court either made an unsupported statement that the job at issue was repetitive without further discussion or, at best, discussed the matter in a cursory fashion."

Instead, the court announced that claimants need only show that their jobs involve a series of events occurring regularly, continuously, or at frequent intervals over extended periods of time, with the key question being whether the job was sufficiently repetitive to cause the injury in question.

The court went on to explain why an ergonomics report could not be relevant to the issue of causation.

"A claimant should never be foreclosed from recovery for the sole reason that his or her injury is statistically unlikely," the court wrote. "A causation inquiry is necessarily fact-intensive, based on a discrete set of circumstances under which a particular claimant must prove his or her injury is compensable."

The court held that, as a matter of law, the worker sustained a compensable work-related injury and remanded the case to the appellate panel to calculate benefits.


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    About The Author

    • Frank Ferreri

      Frank Ferreri, M.A., J.D. covers workers' compensation legal issues. He has published books, articles, and other material on multiple areas of employment, insurance, and disability law. Frank received his master's degree from the University of South Florida and juris doctor from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

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