In what is likely to become a landmark ruling, a Brooklyn federal court has ordered Digital to pay almost $6 million to three women who sustained arm and wrist injuries while using one of the supplier?s keyboards.
Patricia Geressy, a secretary with the Port Authority of New York, took the lion?s share of the compensatory award, $5.4 million, because it was judged that she had been most badly injured. Legal secretary Jill Jackson won $306,000 while hospital clerk Janet Roloto takes home $280,000.
The jury in the three-week hearing in the US District Court in Brooklyn found no evidence of defective design in Digital?s LK201 keyboard, but blamed the company for failing to issue warnings to customers about the dangers of repetitive typing, which can cause repetitive strain injury (RSI).
This is the first time a supplier has been found guilty in such a case. The women?s lawyer, Steven Phillips of New York-based Levy, Phillips & Konigsberg, which has more than 2,000 claimants in similar RSI-related actions, said; "We?ve settled cases before and we?ve tried cases that have lost. This is the moment when it turns around."
According to Phillips, the women had worked on keyboards that Digital knew could result in carpal tunnel syndrome, a repetitive strain injury resulting from continued pressure on nerves in the wrist. Geressy has undergone four operations since her injuries became severe in 1991.
It was further alleged that Digital employees had received warnings and training after the company was cited by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for similar injuries in 1989, but failed to pass the information on to customers. "Not only did [Digital] know people were getting hurt, they knew how to fix the problem and they kept quiet so that they could sell equipment," claimed Phillips.
Digital is set to ask the courts to overturn the judgment, which was passed last Wednesday, but only made public on Monday after the stock market had closed. A company spokesman claimed the verdict had not been revealed last week because it was not deemed to be a material event for investors.
Other companies, such as IBM and Compaq, have successfully defended themselves against similar claims in the past. In an official statement, Digital cited such cases in its defence, arguing that the verdict was inconsistent with scientific knowledge, evidence and the law. The statement read: "There is no scientific data linking keyboard use and muscular-skeletal disorders, juries in other cases have agreed."
Digital now has three weeks to file a motion to set aside the verdict. If it succeeds in such a plea, the award might be adjusted in its favour or a new trial held to reassess the case. Once the plea is filed, the plaintiffs have two weeks to respond. If the Digital motion is rejected, the supplier can still launch an appeal against the verdict.
According to the latest available figures from the US Department of Labor, the number of new cases of RSI injuries more than doubled between 1989 and 1993 to top the 300,000 mark. The Bureau of Labor Statistics claims that in 1993, some 41,000 of these cases were related to carpal tunnel syndrome and were severe enough to result in victims taking time off work.
Earlier this year in Philadelphia it was decided that an IBM keyboard was not responsible for RSI injuries, in only the second case to reach a jury, a verdict which was repeated in a Kansas court room in October.
Compaq is facing an RSI-related trial in February next year, but in 1994 successfully defended an action in which a secretary claimed she got carpal tunnel syndrome from using one of the company?s keyboards. Despite winning the case, Compaq began placing a warning label on its products from August 1994.
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