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Peoria Co. Nursing Home v. Industrial Com.





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Peoria County; the Hon. Robert E. Manning, Judge, presiding.


JUSTICE BARRY delivered the opinion of the court:

Rehearing denied December 31, 1985.

• 1 The critical issue in this appeal is whether an injury sustained as the result of work-related repetitive trauma is compensable under the Workers' Compensation Act absent one precise, identifiable incident which a court may label an "accident." Based upon the purpose of the Workers' Compensation Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 48, par. 138.1 et seq.) (hereafter the Act) and recognizing the new and changing nature of the employment environment, we hold that such injuries, when the claimant's burden of proof has been met, are compensable under the Act.

We emphasize initially that our decision encompasses only work-related injuries. Our holding today does not alter the present case law regarding pre-existing, non-work-related injuries. We do not intend to change hereby the basic principles set forth in Lyons v. Industrial Com. (1983), 96 Ill.2d 198, 449 N.E.2d 1323, Greater Peoria Mass. Transit District v. Industrial Com. (1980), 81 Ill.2d 38, 405 N.E.2d 796, Lambert v. Industrial Com. (1980), 79 Ill.2d 243, 402 N.E.2d 617, and Bunney v. Industrial Com. (1979), 75 Ill.2d 413, 389 N.E.2d 536. Further, to the extent that these and other cases involve injuries or disease not related to the employees' employment, these cases are not germane to the cause at bar. There was no evidence that the claimant suffered from a non-work-related injury or illness.

This appeal is brought by the claimant's employer, Peoria County Belwood Nursing Home (hereafter Belwood). The claimant, Wanda Cagle, filed a claim for compensation under the Act on August 24, 1979. The claimant alleged that she developed carpal tunnel syndrome in her left wrist in the course of her job in the laundry room of Belwood. She had been employed by Belwood for 12 years. She worked in the laundry room for the six years prior to her injury. Her duties in the laundry room consisted of sorting laundry and loading the laundry into two 200-pound capacity washing machines. Each machine was operated six times a day and was loaded by operating a spring-loaded door into each of three compartments. She was also required to carry laundry bags weighing from 25 to 50 pounds.

The claimant initially identified the date of her injury as October 5, 1976. At trial, she testified that she noticed pain, numbness and tingling for a substantial period of time prior to October 5. Her testimony was confused as to exactly how long she experienced symptoms, but she did experience symptoms on October 4, 1976. On October 5, 1976, she consulted Dr. McLean, a neurologist, regarding her symptoms. She continued to work until August 23, 1977, when she underwent outpatient surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.

Based on this evidence, the arbitrator amended the application for benefits to reflect a date of injury of October 4, 1976. The arbitrator awarded benefits for temporary total disability and for 25% permanent total disability. The Industrial Commission affirmed the award. The circuit court of Peoria County confirmed the Commission's decision. Belwood brings the instant appeal.

Belwood raises two interrelated issues. It asserts, first, that the Industrial Commission's finding that the claimant sustained an accidental injury is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. In a related argument, the employer asserts that the claim for benefits is barred by the statute of limitations.

The arbitrator and Commission found that the claimant had sustained an accidental injury as a result of repeated trauma to her wrist in operating the two large washing machines. The employer argues that because there was no specific incident by which the claimant's injury could be traced to a definite time, place and cause, the injury was not an "accidental injury" under the Act. The Commission's finding that the claimant suffered an "accidental injury" is, according to Belwood, contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence.

The crux of this issue, then, is what constitutes an "accidental injury" under the Act. The Illinois Supreme Court has held that an injury is "accidental" within the meaning of the Act if it is traceable to a definite time, place and cause. (International Harvester Co. v. Industrial Com. (1973), 56 Ill.2d 84, 305 N.E.2d 529.) The employee in International Harvester developed emphysema as a result of his employment. Barred from recovery under the Workmen's Occupational Diseases Act, the employee sought recovery under the Workmen's Compensation Act. The Illinois Supreme Court noted that aggravation of a pre-existing disease was compensable under the Act where the "employee's existing physical structure, whatever it may be, gives way under the stress of his usual labor and he is suddenly disabled." (56 Ill.2d 84, 90, 305 N.E.2d 529, 533.) The court thus reasoned that either the cause or the effect of the aggravation of disease must be traceable to a specific time, place and cause in order for an employee to recover under the Act.

The court in International Harvester observed that the Act and the Workmen's Occupational Diseases Act are complimentary. Indeed, a claim submitted under one statute may be considered under the other if the facts of the case demonstrate that the other is the more appropriate law. Following the decision in International Harvester, the Workmen's Occupational Diseases Act was amended to provide recovery for disease arising out of repeated exposure. The legislature thereby nullified the rule in International Harvester that the aggravation of a pre-existing disease must be traceable to a specific time, place and cause. The legislature has obviously seen no need to address the question of whether a physical injury must be similarly traced. The Illinois courts, however, have retained the definition of "accidental" in International Harvester in resolving claims brought under the Act for work-related physical injury.

The requirement that an accidental injury be traceable to a definite time, place and cause was reiterated in General Electric Co. v. Industrial Com. (1982), 89 Ill.2d 432, 433 N.E.2d 671. The claimant in General Electric sought compensation for carpal tunnel syndrome sustained as the result of work-related repetitive trauma. General Electric argued that there was no accidental injury because the claimant's injury was not traceable to a definite time, place and cause. The supreme court held that the claimant sustained an accidental injury despite the fact that the injury was the result of repeated trauma because there was a precise identifiable incident in which her physical structure gave way under the stress of her usual work tasks.

Thus, the rule has evolved that in order to demonstrate an "accidental injury," a claimant must trace the injury either to a specific accident identifiable as to time and place or to the specific moment of collapse of one's physical structure, identifiable as to time and place. Under the present interpretation of the Act, it is not sufficient for a claimant to show that a bodily structure eroded over time to the point of uselessness as a result of employment. Instead, a claimant must demonstrate a precise moment of collapse and dysfunction.

We consider the implication of this rule for all of the employees, factory workers, supervisors, managers, secretaries, salespeople and others, working in Illinois in this technological age. In real life, the erosion of a bodily structure to the point of uselessness translates into arms that cannot lift, legs that cannot walk, knees that cannot bend, lungs that cannot breathe, and eyes chronically irritated or worse. But evidence of such work-related injuries alone is not sufficient under the prior interpretations of "accidental injury." Instead, useless limbs, damaged organs and disabled bodies must be pushed to a precise moment of collapse and dysfunction. Then, and only then, according to these interpretations, may a court of this State find an employee eligible for compensation under the Act.

The time has come to abandon an interpretation of "accidental" which fails to address documentable and medically recognizable risks faced by the individuals in connection with their employment. The risk of injury from repeated trauma and exposure endured by truck drivers, CRT operators, chemists and others must be recognized. The judicial interpretation of "accident" must be refined to reflect the purpose of the Act and the reality of employees obligated to perform repetitive tasks.

The purpose of the Act is that the burdens of caring for the casualties of industry be borne by industry and not the employees or the public. (Petrazelli v. Propper (1951), 409 Ill. 365, 99 N.E.2d 140.) The primary objective of the Act is to afford employees and their dependents a measure of financial protection while eliminating the vast costs of tens of thousands of potential common law actions filed against employers. (Baker & Conrad, Inc. v. Chicago Heights Construction Co. (1936), 364 Ill. 386, 4 N.E.2d 953.) The Act represents the exchange of previously existing common law rights and remedies between employers and employee. (Alton v. Byerly Aviation, Inc. (1977), 68 Ill.2d 19, 368 N.E.2d 922.) In construing the Act, courts must give its provisions the practical and liberal interpretation intended by the legislature. (K. & R. Delivery, Inc. v. Industrial Com. (1957), 11 Ill.2d 441, 143 N.E.2d 56.) As was said in Kelsay v. Motorola, Inc. (1978), 74 Ill.2d 172, 181, 384 N.E.2d 353, 357, the Act is a humane law of remedial nature.

Like the courts of Illinois, the Supreme Court of Ohio had historically interpreted the term "accidental" in its worker's compensation statute (Ohio Rev. Code Ann. sec. 4123.01(C) (1980)) to require a showing of a sudden mishap occurring at a particular time and place. In Village v. General Motors Corp. (Ohio 1984), 15 Ohio St.3d 129, 472 N.E.2d 1079, the court noted that its efforts to define "accidental" had resulted in a tortuous line of cases, culminating in holdings that disabilities which developed over time were not compensable because they lacked the essential features of suddenness, unexpectedness and unforeseeability. The Village court rejected these holdings, finding that the distinction between gradual and abrupt causation frustrated the clear purpose of the statute, which was to compensate workers injured as a result of the requirements of their employment.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Holmes acknowledged that difficult questions would be presented in the application of the Village decision. He noted, however, that it remained the claimant's burden to establish that his injury was caused by a "working condition with a definite time span." 15 Ohio St.3d 129, 135, 472 N.E.2d 1079, 1084.

We concede that similar issues of law and fact will arise because we today recognize gradual injury due to repetitive trauma as compensable under the Act. However, as Justice Holmes also noted, a claimant must fulfill his obligation of proof and show that his injury is work-related and not the product of the aging process.

An employee alleging injury based on repetitive trauma must meet the same standard of proof as claimants alleging a single, definable accident. The difficulty in proving that injury resulting from repeated trauma arose out of and in the course of employment will pose a serious burden for a claimant. The difficulty of resolving any such issues should not prevent this court, like Ohio, from considering just compensation for all employees so injured.

The Illinois Supreme Court has noted that the word "accident" is not a technical legal term. (E. Baggot Co. v. Industrial Com. (1919), 290 Ill. 530, 125 N.E.2d 254.) Indeed, the word "accidental", as used in the Act, "is a comprehensive term almost without boundaries in meaning as related to some untoward event." Ervin v. Industrial Com. (1936), 364 Ill. 56, 60, 4 N.E.2d 22, 24.

Like the Ohio court in Village, this court finds that an employee may be "accidentally injured" under the Act as the result of repetitive, work-related trauma even absent a final, identifiable episode of collapse. We reject an interpretation of "accidental" which forces injured employees needing the protection of the Act to choose between foregoing that protection, "creating" one identifiable incident, or pushing their now-injured bodies to the point of collapse or dysfunction. The elimination of this too narrow definition of "accidental injury" will effectuate the purpose of the Act and provide equal protection for all manner of employees of this State.

• 2 Absent the narrow construction of "accident" in the case at bar, the evidence was sufficient to prove that the claimant sustained an accidental injury arising out of and in the course of her employment. Although the date of injury alleged by the claimant differed from the date of injury assigned by the arbitrator, the claimant established by her testimony that she was injured during her employment. (See generally Interlake Steel Co. v. Industrial Com. (1985), 136 Ill. App.3d 740.) The claimant testified that she experienced pain and tingling in her left arm. While she worked a regular work schedule on October 4, on October 5, she informed her physician that she experienced extreme difficulty in gripping the washer doors due to the severity of her symptoms. Both the claimant and Dr. Rivero related the symptoms to her employment. The medical testimony as to the claimant's condition was uncontroverted. We find that the claimant proved that she sustained an "accidental injury" under the Act.

Because we so find, we must now consider whether the claim was timely filed. Belwood argues that the claim is barred by the statute of limitations.

Section 6(c)(2) of the Act provides, in relevant part, that a claim for compensation must be filed within three years after the date of the accident. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, par. 138.6(c)(2).) To determine whether the filing of the claim was timely, we must first determine the date of the claimant's accident.

Professor Larson suggests that the date of an "accident" in cases of repetitive trauma be defined as "the date on which the disability, manifests itself." (1B Larson, Workmen's Compensation sec. 39.50 (1985).) The Supreme Court of Maine utilized this definition to determine when a worker was disabled by carpal tunnel syndrome in Ross v. Oxford Paper Co. (Me. 1976), 363 A.2d 712. The employee Ross had received treatment from the employer's first aid department over a period of years for continuing numbness in his hands. Finally, on March 17, 1974, the worker was no longer able to ...

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