On December 9, 2015, the South Carolina Court of Appeals released its decision in a workers’ compensation case, Ricky Rhame v. Charleston County School District. It involved a repetitive trauma injury under workers’ compensation, which Rhame claimed he sustained while working for the school district as a heating and air conditioning technician over a 22-year career. A prior workers’ compensation commission decision ruled the statute of limitations had run out on his claim, meaning he waited too long to file it. The Court of Appeals overturned that, giving Rhame comp benefits.
The Repetitive Trauma Injury
As we have noted before, repetitive trauma or repetitive motion injuries develop over a long period of time. The South Carolina Supreme Court has noted how hard it is to determine the date an injury occurs in these cases.
Rhame’s case is a perfect illustration how these injuries get discovered—and denied. He admitted he had occasional back pain from lifting heavy heating and air conditioning equipment for 14 or 15 years before he filed for workers’ compensation. He claimed he suffered a repetitive trauma injury from repeatedly lifting this heavy equipment.
The school district’s insurance company launched an industry-favorite defense to deny benefits for these injuries: the statute of limitations. That’s the legal deadline to file for benefits. Basically, the insurance company accuses the hurt employee of not complaining about his injury soon enough, so it’s just not going to help. It can be a legal way to be stripped of your rights by trying to be tough.
The Denial and Rhame’s Explanation
The statute of limitations defense stated Rhame should have filed a claim as soon as he had back pain. Rhame’s lawyers explained several reasons for the delay:
- The occasional back pain never resulted from an identifiable incident.
- Rhame had an (unjustified) fear of losing his job.
- Rhame could still work until right before he filed for comp.
- Rhame was ignorant of how comp and repetitive trauma injuries worked until he hired a lawyer.
The workers’ compensation commission ultimately agreed with the school district’s insurance company.
The Appeal Decision
The Court of Appeals reinstated Rhame’s benefits. Most interestingly, the Court concluded while Rhame began experiencing back pain 14 or 15 years before he filed for benefits, that wasn’t a workers compensation injury triggering the requirement to file for it. In reaching this conclusion, the Court pointed to several factors:
- He never missed work until right before he filed for benefits.
- He identified the incident where his pain went from occasional to constant. Just months before filing for benefits, he moved a really heavy unit and “couldn’t even stand up straight” afterwards.
- After that incident, doctors told him he could not work.
The two most important factors to the Court were that his prior back pain never got diagnosed as a permanent injury and created no permanent work restrictions. Citing a prior case, Bass v. Isochem, the Court rejected the argument a repetitive trauma injury starts when an employee first experiences symptoms.
The Court of Appeals rejected the statute of limitations defense, ruling Rhame filed his claim on time because he did it within months of developing constant pain keeping him from work on doctors’ orders.
Don’t Assume You’re Ricky Rhame
Why risk it? If you think you’ve been hurt at work through either an accident or a repetitive trauma injury, you need to act now. Assume the clock is ticking—because Rhame can still lose his case, and his is probably different than yours. Only time will tell whether the insurance company appeals to the Supreme Court, which could overturn the Court of Appeals.
Even if Rhame wins, think of all the time he’s likely worried about his case. And all that time he’s gone without disability income and wondering if comp will pay his medical bills…and wondering if he’ll ever get a cash settlement to compensate him for the work he might never again be able to do.
When you have a limited time to protect your rights, it’s always better safe than sorry. It won’t cost you a thing to tell us your story and see if we can help you—and if you’re seriously hurt, you don’t need the added frustration of insurance company bullying and delay. Send us an email or live chat right where you are to schedule a free meeting to discuss your rights to best protect your future.