Brooks began working as a "switcher" truck driver for Benore in June 2016. As a switcher, he was required to hook and unhook trailers to a cab up to 45-60 times during a 12-hour shift. The process included getting in and out of the truck cab up to 225 times. Duties included bending, twisting and climbing.
Brooks began treating in January 2017 for back and right leg pain. In May, he presented to Dr. Eric Loudermilk, who mentioned the nature of Brooks' job duties in notes from the appointment and referred him for an MRI. The MRI revealed Brooks had a herniated disk at L4-L5. Subsequently, Loudermilk signed a questionnaire stating the Claimant's repetitive activities on-the-job more likely than not caused his herniated disk and associated pain in his back and leg.
At the Single Commission hearing, Benore presented an ergonomics report indicating Brook's job duties created, "no enhanced risk of injury to his back." The Claimant appeared as the sole witness. The Single Commissioner awarded the Claimant benefits. The decision was reversed by the Full Commission where it was determined Brooks had not proven his job duties were repetitive. The Full Commission based its decision on a two-part test requiring claimants not only have medical evidence establishing a causal connection between their injuries to their duties, but also to prove their job requirements were repetitive in nature. Brooks appealed to the Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals began its analysis by reiterating," Section 42-1-172...is the exclusive method for determining the compensability of repetitive trauma injuries." The Court went on to reference the "leading case" interpreting the statute, Murphy v. Owens Corning. Murphy, 393 S.C. 77,710 S.E. 2d. 454 (Ct. App. 2011). In Owens, for a repetitive trauma claim to be compensable there had to be a "specific finding of fact, made by the greater weight of the evidence, of a direct causal relationship, established by medical evidence, between the injury and the repetitive act...." Murphy, 393 S.C. at 85, 710 S.E. 2d. at 485. The Court found the Full Commission misinterpreted both the applicable statute and precedent case law when it established a two-part test that would "force" claimants additionally to provide expert evidence that their jobs were repetitive.
The Court found the intent of the statute was to require a factual finding that "medical evidence establishes a causal connection" between a claimant's duties and in his injury. (Emphasis added.) The Court stated it was certain that in drafting S.C. Code Ann. §42-1-172 the legislature understood a doctor was capable of diagnosing the cause of a patient's injury. (They did note Dr. Loudermilk indicated the ergonomics report it did not change his causation opinion.) Ultimately, the Court concluded that doctors can make a causation determination without an ergonomics opinion under §42-1-172 and the Full Commission erred in its reliance on an ergonomics evaluation as it was not medical evidence. Michau v. Georgetown County, 396 S.C. 589, 595, 723 S.E. 2d. 805, 808 (2012).
The case was reversed and remanded for a calculation of benefits. The Defendants' request for a rehearing was subsequently denied.
Prior to Brooks, taking on a repetitive trauma claim had its challenges from a claimant attorney's perspective. Some believed obtaining an ergonomics evaluation was best practice or required in certain circumstances. (Based on varying decisions from the single and full commission.) In many claims, involving carpel tunnel or other more minor repetitive injuries, ergo. evaluations could be a prohibitively high expense.
After Brooks, the law is clear. There will be no need for claimants to obtain an ergonomics report, as long as they can accurately explain their duties to a doctor who is willing to give a causation opinion. If the defense does obtain an evaluation, claimants can simply show it to their own medical provider for the supporting opinion they will need, as Brooks did here. In repetitive motion claims, notice and knowing the date of onset were already somewhat relaxed requirements. S.C. Code Ann. §42-15-20 and Schurlknight v. City of N. Charleston, 325 S.C. 175, 178, 574 S.E.2d 194, 195 (2002). Thus, if this opinion is not overturned, it opens the door wide for employees to successfully bring repetitive injury claims in South Carolina. Moreover, repetitive claims could become attorneys' "go-to" when a claimant comes in unable to pinpoint exactly how or when an accident happened and has some duties that are "repetitive" in nature.
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