Employer Liability for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Injury

Most employees are covered by workers compensation, which would cover carpal tunnel syndrome, but there are exceptions depending on the nature of employment.

By , Attorney · Pepperdine Caruso School of Law

The vast majority of workplace injuries are covered by workers' compensation, and that includes repetitive-stress type injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome.

If you are diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of work-related activities, it is important that you understand your state's workers' compensation insurance system. Workers' compensation (sometimes referred to as "workman's compensation") may be your only means of receiving compensation. Read on to learn more about worker's compensation in the context of a carpal tunnel injury.

What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition caused by compression of the median nerve and the tendons that flex your fingers as they travel through the carpal tunnel in your wrist. This tunnel is narrow, so even a small amount of swelling may compress the nerve and tendons. This compression can cause pain, weakness, and numbness in the hand and wrist.

The responsibility of your employer depends upon the nature of the injury sustained, as well as whether the injury was directly attributable to work-related tasks.

Workers' Compensation Coverage

Most states require that employers provide workers' compensation coverage for their employees. If your carpal tunnel syndrome is the result of work-related tasks, by law you're probably entitled to receive workers' compensation benefits.

Workers' Compensation as Exclusive Remedy

Workers' compensation is a tradeoff: in exchange for the employee forfeiting his or her right to sue the employer for the damages caused by carpal tunnel syndrome, the employee can receive benefits for work-related injuries without regard to fault. This is known as the "compensation bargain."

Thus, workers' compensation may be the only means of recovery for carpal tunnel syndrome. This means that you cannot initiate a civil lawsuit against your employer to recover damages. Instead, you must file a claim through your state's administrative workers' compensation agency.

Employer Liability & The Employer-Employee Relationship

Who is an Employer?

"Employer" is a broad term that will be defined by your state's workers' compensation statute. It will include natural persons and entities such as corporations and partnerships. However, depending upon your state, your employer may be excluded from the workers' compensation system.

Employers that are typically exempt are those that do not employ the statute's minimum number of employees, do not have a minimum amount of payroll per calendar quarter, or are a particular type of employer, such as a charity or public entity.

You may have more than one employer for workers' compensation purposes. For example, if your carpal tunnel syndrome was brought about by a lifetime of labor for various employers, your previous employer (or employers) may be considered your employer for workers' compensation purposes, even though you haven't actually worked for any of them in years. This again depends upon your state's workers' compensation statute.

Who is an Employee?

Typically, an employer is only required to purchase workers' compensation insurance for its employees. Thus, independent contractors are not covered because they are not employees. However, an injured worker thought to be an independent contractor may have been misclassified. Whether or not someone is an employee or independent contractor is determined by a judge or referee at the Workers' Compensation Board, not by the employer and employee. How the parties actually label themselves may be considered, but typically those labels alone will not decide the issue.

What Benefits are Included?

Most states will cover the following benefits for those suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome:

  • Medical bills. If you have medical bills, they will be paid for to help you recover from your work-related injuries. This can include rehabilitative care, surgery, and medical equipment such as wrist braces. However, keep in mind that your choices of doctors may be limited.
  • Temporary disability benefits. If your injury prevents you from performing your job normally and, as a result, you miss days of work, you may be entitled to temporary disability benefits such as lost wages. These payments are usually available only after you miss several days of work.
  • Permanent disability benefits. If you do not completely recover from you injuries, you may receive permanent disability benefits based upon the nature and extent of your impairment or injury. In some instances, your employer might have to make adjustments to your assignments or provide compensation for you to seek other forms of employment, often in the form of vocational training costs.

See Making a Workers Compensation Claim for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome for more on what you'll need.

Beware of Limitations on Benefits

The amount of benefits that you are entitled to receive for carpal tunnel syndrome may be limited by the workers' compensation rules in your state. Some states have a list of specific injuries, so that a dollar amount is specially designated for benefits arising from carpal tunnel syndrome. Other states mandate that compensation is based on a scale or rating of the severity of your injuries or disabilities.

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