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When a worker applies for benefits for a “cumulative trauma” injury — such as carpal tunnel syndrome — the 120-day employer notice period required by the Workers’ Compensation Act should begin to run from the last day the injury is suffered, as opposed to when it is first diagnosed, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has unanimously ruled in a case of first impression. In City of Philadelphia v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Williams), claimant Nadine Williams’ bilateral carpal tunnel condition was first diagnosed in January 1996, but Williams, a typist and word processor for the city’s Fairmount Park Commission, did not officially notify the city of her injury until her last day of work in March 1997. The justices affirmed the decisions by the workers’ compensation judge, Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board and Commonwealth Court to award Williams benefits. “Where as here the credited medical evidence establishes that a cumulative trauma disorder was at issue,” Justice Ronald D. Castille wrote, “and that conditions at work cause an aggravation of the disorder, notice must be deemed timely so long as it was given within 120 days of the last aggravation injury — which will usually be the last day at work or the day where total disability resulted.” Castille was joined by Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy and Justices Russell M. Nigro, Sandra Schultz Newman, Thomas G. Saylor and J. Michael Eakin. William Lamb, a justice at the time, did not participate in the decision. Sam Pond, the vice president of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association and a partner at the workers’ compensation claimants’ firm Martin Banks Pond Lehocky & Wilson in Philadelphia, said the court’s decision would most likely make attorneys think twice about turning down potential clients with claims similar to Williams’. “This [ruling] is going to raise the mindfulness of claimants’ practitioners that these are very viable cases,” Pond said. According to the opinion, � 311 of the Workers’ Compensation Act mandates that no compensation can be granted to a claimant where the employer has not been notified of the injury within 120 days of its occurrence. Williams had been an employee of the city for roughly five years when, in December 1995, she began to experience pain and numbness in her hands and wrists, the opinion states. In January 1996, she told her supervisor that she would be missing work to seek treatment for the condition. Later that January, a doctor diagnosed Williams with carpal tunnel syndrome, according to the opinion. On March 17, 1997, while typing a letter, she later testified, her hands went completely numb and she never returned to work. She informed her supervisor of the injury that day and the assistant human resources manager approximately two weeks later. Both the city’s and Williams’ medical experts diagnosed her with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, the opinion states. The workers’ compensation judge awarded her temporary total disability benefits in November 2000. The WCAB affirmed in March 2002. “This court granted discretionary review because the notice issue in cases of aggravation injuries is important,” Castille wrote. “It is an issue of first impression for this court; and as is evidenced by the fact that the parties have forwarded plausible arguments premised upon competing lines of Commonwealth Court authority, the Commonwealth Court decisions in this area are uneven.” For notices of an aggravation injury, some Commonwealth Court decisions have called for the 120-day deadline to start counting down on the last day of work, according to the opinion, while others, including one that addressed a carpal tunnel injury, have found it acceptable to have the clock start running on the date of the first diagnosis. Castille wrote that the language of � 311 does not specifically address the question presented by Williams, because “the phrase which triggers the notice requirement is ‘occurrence of the injury.’” However, � 301(c)(1) of the act — a definitions section not cited by the Commonwealth Court or by any of the parties in Williams, according to the opinion — does refer to aggravation injuries, a definition the Supreme Court has often recognized. “Given the plain language of Section 301(c)(1), and this court’s precedent,” Castille wrote, “this aggravation injury plainly qualifies as a compensable ‘injury’ for purposes of the act.” The justices also rejected the city’s “public policy” argument that a decision in Williams’ favor would discourage employers from hiring workers with pre-existing conditions since they would fear a rash of work-related injury claims from relatively new hires. “The appropriate forum for such an argument is the General Assembly, not this court,” Castille wrote. Martin Banks’ Pond noted that Castille’s opinion was somewhat rare in its recital of the purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Act. “‘Borderline interpretations’ of the act ‘are to be construed in the injured party’s favor,’” Castille wrote, quoting past Supreme Court case law. “Quite frankly,” Pond said, “in the last 10 to 15 years, we haven’t seen the court citing those very basic tenets of the act that go back to its inception at the turn of the [last] century.” Pond also said that although workers’ compensation tribunals have, in his experience, almost uniformly awarded benefits in aggravation injury cases, many claimants’ attorneys have shied away from cases where they assumed the 120-day limit had come and gone. “Does [this decision] make it tougher for employers to defend these cases? I don’t think it’s any tougher than it was,” Pond said. “I do think that there was a lack of knowledge or a misunderstanding and some claimants’ practitioners thought that they wouldn’t be able to succeed with these cases.” Williams’ case was handled by solo practitioner Stephen Bruccoleri of Philadelphia. The city’s attorney was Leah Cilo of Naulty Scaricamazza & McDevitt in Philadelphia. Neither immediately responded to calls seeking comment. The WCAB was represented by Department of Labor & Industry deputy chief counsel Richard Lengler and assistant counsel Amber Kenger. Department spokesman Barry Ciccocioppo said that the WCAB did not have any comment on the decision.

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