Missouri WC Repetitive Trauma Update – Statute of Limitations: When does the clock start ticking?

There are often issues relating to the statute of limitations in carpal tunnel and other repetitive trauma cases.  When does the clock actually start ticking?  The Missouri Court of Appeals recently addressed this exact issue in the case of Lisa Cook v. Missouri Highway & Transportation Commission.   The claimant worked as a secretary for a government agency and spent between 85-90% of her time performing data entry on a computer.  She began working as a secretary for the agency in 1997.   She first started having wrist issues in 2005 and sought medical treatment. Her family doctor noted that her work involved repetitive movements of the wrist.  The claimant suspected she had bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. She underwent a nerve conduction study which was normal and she was advised that she did not have carpal tunnel syndrome. In September of 2007, she had wrist pain and swelling and was sent by her employer for treatment. She was diagnosed with extensor tendinitis of wrists and right elbow and over-use tendinitis. She was treated with splints and anti-inflammatories. By late November 2007, she had no symptoms.  She was not diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome.  In 2011, she sought additional medical treatment for wrist problems in 2011 and a nerve conduction test revealed nerve damage in her wrists and she was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. She underwent bilateral surgeries in 2012.  She filed her claims in 2012.

The case was denied by the employer based on an opinion that there were underlying medical risk factors which caused the carpal tunnel syndrome including diabetes, hypertension, age, sex, and gender.  The claimant sought medical treatment on her own.  She underwent bilateral carpal tunnel releases in 2012 and her doctor opined that the bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome was primarily caused by her 14 years of repetitive work for her employer.

Depositions were taken and the case proceeded to trial before an administrative law judge who found that that her work was the primary cause of the carpal tunnel syndrome.  The decision was appealed and subsequently affirmed with the court finding a compensable injury and also finding that she had filed a timely claim.  The employer appealed the decision to the Missouri Court of Appeals arguing that the work was not the prevailing cause of the carpal tunnel and that the statute of limitations barred her claim.  The employer argued that the claim should be barred by the statute of limitations as her condition was reasonably discoverable both in 2005 and 2007, more than two years prior to the 2012 filing of her claims.  The employer argued that the statute of limitations started running as soon as the employee found out that she had carpal tunnel syndrome.

Missouri statute states that the 2-year claim filing deadline does “not begin to run on an occupational disease such as carpal tunnel until it becomes reasonably discoverable and apparent that an injury has been sustained relative to such exposure [to repetitive motion work].”

The court held that the issue as to when the clock on the filing deadline begins to run is not when the employee first realizes they have carpal tunnel syndrome, but when the employee should first become aware that their carpal tunnel syndrome was caused by their exposure to repetitive work.  The court noted that the doctor hired by the employer told her that she had carpal tunnel syndrome but he also stated that it was not primarily related to her work.  The court held that the statute of limitation clock does not start running for carpal tunnel cases when the injured worker is diagnosed with carpal tunnel but it starts running when it becomes reasonably apparent to the employee that the carpal tunnel syndrome was work-related and related to the repetitive work.  In this case, the statute did not start running until 2012 when she was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and a doctor opined that the condition was related to her work.

This case requires a close watch on the time of the medical diagnosis and causation opinions. It may also require employers to keep repetitive trauma cases, without filed Claims for Compensation, open longer as the statue may not necessarily run two years after the carpal tunnel diagnosis.  Please contact us with any questions about this case or any other Missouri workers’ compensation issues.

Please feel free contact us with any Missouri workers’ compensation questions. Thanks to attorney Jill Baker for the summary of this case.  Jill works out of the Chicago and St. Louis offices of Inman and Fitzgibbons and can be reached at jbaker@inmanfitzgibbons.com.

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