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The resolution of a workers’ compensation claim over an injury to a claimant’s hand and loss of use of one of his fingers does not bar a subsequent claim for carpal tunnel syndrome, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has ruled. The three-judge panel in Henion v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Firpo & Sons Inc., PICS Case No. 01-1278 (Pa. Commw. June 22, 2001), said neither the principles of technical res judicata nor collateral estoppel barred the carpal tunnel claim. According to Judge Rochelle Friedman’s decision, Roy Henion, a truck driver for Firpo & Sons Inc., injured himself while changing a tire on April 12, 1995. Henion’s right hand was caught between the wheel well and tire, amputating the tip of his middle finger. Henion filed a specific-loss petition for the loss of one-half of his right middle finger but withdrew it after his employer made sufficient payments under the notice of compensation payable. He filed a second claim petition some time later for an injury to his right hand and the lost use of his right index finger. Firpo denied the second claim. At the workers’ compensation hearing, Henion testified that he experienced pain in his right hand, preventing him from gripping and holding an item, and that he needed help lifting heavy objects. Henion’s medical expert, Dr. Rebecca S. Witham, testified that his symptoms were suggestive of carpal tunnel syndrome, although the condition had not been confirmed. The Worker’s Compensation Judge concluded Henion’s injury was not separate and distinct from his compensated specific loss and so he did not meet his burden of proof. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board affirmed. While Henion’s second claim was pending, he filed a third claim alleging the work injury caused him to suffer carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands. He also filed a review petition on the same day asking the WCJ to order inclusion of carpal tunnel syndrome. The WCJ held a hearing on the third claim petition and the review petition, eventually dismissing both. The WCJ said that because the claim and review petitions contained identical allegations, the issues in the petitions were barred by res judicata. The WCAB affirmed. In the Commonwealth Court decision, Friedman noted that there are two distinct res judicata principles: technical res judicata and collateral estoppel. The former precludes a future suit on the same cause of action once a matter reaches a final judgment. The latter bars litigation over issues of law or fact that were litigated or necessary to a previous final judgment. The appellate court concluded neither principle applied. For purposes of technical res judicata, Friedman said, the ultimate issues surrounding resolution of Henion’s original claim and his subsequent claim were not identical. “In the April 5, 1997 decision, the WCJ indicates that [Henion] alleged an injury only to his right hand and his right index finger in the May 1, 1995, claim petition; however, in the April 21, 1997, claim and review petitions, [Henion] alleges an injury to his left hand as well as carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands,” Friedman said. “Moreover, in the April 5, 1997, decision, the WCJ never adjudicated the issue of carpal tunnel syndrome; he merely noted [Witham's] testimony that [Henion's] symptoms were suggestive of carpal tunnel syndrome.” In terms of collateral estoppel, Friedman said, the existence of carpal tunnel syndrome was not litigated or necessary to the decision on the May 1, 1995, petition. “In fact, the only mention of carpal tunnel in that claim petition is made by reference to Dr. Witham’s testimony, where she states that the stiffness of [Henion's] injured finger and the ongoing pain in the back of his hand are suggestive of carpal tunnel, but the syndrome had not been confirmed by an EMG study,” Friedman said. However, the court affirmed the WCAB’s decision that there was no evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome in Henion’s left hand.

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