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When does workers’ comp clock start ticking for carpal tunnel?

State workers’ comp laws often require an employee to file for benefits within a certain period after having been injured. But with cumulative trauma injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, pinpointing the date of injury is trickier.

Mississippi’s workers’ comp law says if there’s no application for benefits filed within two years of injury, the right to compensation is barred.

However, case law in Mississippi also recognizes carpal tunnel syndrome as an injury that “is not immediately recognizable.” The claim period for the statute of limitations runs from the time the injury becomes “reasonably apparent.”

In this case, Johnnie Brown worked for the Duo-Fast plant in Cleveland, MS. Her job involved packing nails into cartons and was repetitive-motion type work.

After being diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, Brown had surgery. On Oct. 17, 2005, she filed for workers’ comp benefits, alleging a work-related injury had occurred on Oct. 8, 2004.

Duo-Fast appealed her request for benefits, arguing the two-year statute of limitations had run out.

Brown argued the clock start running on May 14, 2004, when she was diagnosed by a doctor with carpal tunnel following a nerve-conduction study.

An administrative law judge found the clock started to run on Nov. 16, 2001, when Brown’s primary care physician diagnosed her with carpal tunnel. Brown appealed that decision.

The Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission found the statute of limitations began to run on Jan. 8, 2003, when a specialist found Brown’s carpal tunnel was work-related. Brown’s diagnosis by her primary care physician didn’t include the fact that the injury was work-related.

But the different date set by the commission didn’t matter. It was still longer than two years, and the commission said Brown should not get benefits. Brown appealed, and the case made its way to the Mississippi Court of Appeals.

Brown argued the statute of limitations should start running on the date when she was diagnosed with carpal tunnel after a doctor performed a nerve-conduction study, March 14, 2004. She claimed only that test can definitely diagnose carpal tunnel.

But the court didn’t see it her way. It said it wasn’t necessary for carpal tunnel to be diagnosed through the nerve test. The diagnosis by the doctor including that it was work-related was enough for the clock to start ticking.

So Brown wasn’t awarded workers’ comp benefits. And she can’t go back to work at the Duo-Fast plant because it closed the same month she applied for benefits.

What do you think about statute of limitations for workers’ comp benefits for cumulative injuries such as carpal tunnel? Let us know in the comments below.

(Brown v. Illinois Tool Works, Court of Appeals of MS, No. 2012-WE-00803-COA, 8/13/2013)

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