The question is often asked, "My medical problems were caused by my job, but I didn't have any specific accident. Can I still collect workers' compensation benefits?"
In this article Joplin, Missouri workers' compensation attorneys address the question of whether cumulative or repetitive trauma injuries are compensable under the Missouri workers' compensation system.
Cumulative Trauma Claims
Many people might not believe they have a workers' compensation claim because their pain or medical problem crept up on them slowly, over time. Because they did not have a specific work-related accident to point to, such as a fall, they do not believe they can get benefits under workers' compensation.
However, the workers' compensation law does not necessarily require a specific event to have occurred to qualify for benefits. A gradual onset injury is often referred to as a "repetitive trauma" or "cumulative trauma" injury, and such injury may be compensable under workers' compensation.
One common cumulative trauma injury that everyone has heard of is the repetitive stress injury carpal tunnel syndrome. While the causes for carpal tunnel syndrome of course vary, repetitive work with the hands, such as typing or other hand-intensive work, can lead to its development. While there is likely no specific accident that occurred that led to the development of the carpal tunnel, the long-term exposure to the repetitive stress may have caused it, and such injury is indeed often compensable under workers' compensation.
There are many other cumulative trauma injuries as well, including things such as tendinitis, long term exposure to toxic chemicals, hearing loss due to repeated exposure to loud noises, etc.
How To Proceed With a Cumulative Trauma Injury Claim
The first step is always to report your injury to your employer and ask for medical treatment if it is needed. If your employer sends you to a doctor, the doctor will likely render an opinion as to whether the doctor believes that your employment exposed you to the type of risk that led to your cumulative trauma injury. This opinion is not binding and you are free to seek a second opinion on your own or in conjunction with your attorney.
It is vital that you report your injury to your employer in a timely manner. However, the timing of reporting the injury can be tricky in cumulative trauma claims. Under Missouri law, you have 30 days from the date a doctor linked your injury to your work to file written notice with your employer. In many cases cumulative trauma injuries are diagnosed after an employee seeks treatment on her own outside of workers' compensation, not realizing that the problems are due to her work. Once the doctor, whether your own family doctor or a doctor supplied by the employer, links your problems to your work, the 30 day clock to report the injury to the employer begins ticking.
Cumulative trauma cases are often easier to deny by employers because there is no one certain event that caused the injury as compared to an accident claim. It is not unheard of for a workers' comp insurance carrier to claim a repetitive motion injury could have been caused by a hobby or some other exposure outside of work.
Workers' Compensation or Civil Negligence Suit?
A recent decision by a Missouri appellate court established that "occupational disease" claims, which includes cumulative or repetitive trauma claims, may proceed either under workers' compensation or via a negligence lawsuit in civil court. Allowing civil negligence suits for these types of injuries is an emerging area of law and it is recommended you consult with an attorney if you are considering this alternative to workers' compensation.
The burden of proof in a cumulative trauma claim is on the employee. Make sure your rights under Missouri's laws are protected. The Joplin workers' compensation law firm of Aaron Sachs are available for a free initial consultation if you believe you have a cumulative trauma case.