Mulder v. Liberty Northwest Ins. Co.

Decision Date29 September 2000
Docket NumberNo. 25576.,25576.
Citation135 Idaho 52,14 P.3d 372
PartiesGerald R. MULDER, Claimant-Respondent, v. LIBERTY NORTHWEST INSURANCE COMPANY, Employer, and Idaho State Insurance Fund, Surety, Defendants-Appellants.
CourtIdaho Supreme Court

Wilcox Law Offices, Boise, for appellants. Todd J. Wilcox argued.

Bradford S. Eidam, Boise, for respondent.

SILAK, Justice.


This is an appeal from an Idaho Industrial Commission (the Commission) order granting claimant medical benefits because of work-related bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. We affirm.

A. Factual Background.

Gerald Mulder (Mulder) was employed by appellant, Liberty Northwest Insurance Company (Liberty) as a senior loss prevention consultant. Liberty is a worker's compensation surety and as senior loss prevention consultant, Mulder traveled to Liberty's various insured customers to assist in safety training programs and to help minimize worker's compensation loss.

Liberty's office was located in Boise, and Mulder's responsibility for serving the Idaho Falls, Pocatello and Blackfoot regions required him to drive his automobile to these locations on a regular basis. Mulder remained in the Boise office during those periods he was not traveling.

During his trips, Mulder would meet with up to four clients per day, and his duties required him to hand-write from one and a half to four pages of notes per client. When he was at the office, Mulder's duties included use of a computer keyboard.

In 1994, Mulder began to notice symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. In May 1996, Mulder was diagnosed by his physician, Dr. William Lenzi (Dr. Lenzi) as having bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. Though the carpal tunnel syndrome was significantly worse in Mulder's left hand than in his right, Dr. Lenzi recommended surgery for both hands. Mulder notified Liberty who filed the proper worker's compensation forms. Mulder did not suffer any time loss from his position at Liberty because of his condition.

In June 1996, Mulder resigned his employment with Liberty and began employment with Fred A. Moreton & Co. (Moreton). Mulder's duties with Moreton involved substantially less driving, handwriting, and virtually no use of a computer keyboard.

In December 1996, Dr. Lenzi informed Mulder that his carpal tunnel situation was static, meaning that it would not get any better or worse without surgery. Mulder subsequently underwent surgery for a carpal tunnel release on his left hand.

B. Procedural Background.

Mulder filed a worker's compensation claim in January 1997 seeking compensation for medical expenses associated with his bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. Liberty filed an answer to the complaint.

The parties conducted pre-hearing depositions of their respective expert witnesses on October 14 and 21, 1997. The Commission conducted a hearing on October 29, 1997 where live testimony was taken from the parties' respective expert witnesses.

In December 1997, the Commission issued its findings of fact and conclusions of law ruling that Mulder was entitled to worker's compensation benefits for medical expenses associated with his left carpal tunnel release but denied benefits for a future right carpal tunnel release. The Commission viewed each as a separate occupational disease and denied benefits for the right hand due to lack of total incapacitation.

Mulder moved for reconsideration of the Commission's determination that his bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome constituted two separate occupational diseases.

In April 1998, the Commission issued its findings of fact and conclusions of law ruling that Mulder's bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome constituted a single, compensable occupational disease but otherwise affirmed its early ruling.

In May 1999, Liberty filed a notice of appeal.


A. Whether the Commission erred in ruling that Mulder's occupational disease resulted from exposure to hazards "characteristic of and peculiar to his trade or occupation."

B. Whether the Commission erred in ruling that Mulder was entitled to medical benefits.


In reviewing an appeal from the Industrial Commission, this Court will uphold the Commission's findings if they are supported by substantial and competent evidence, but will freely review issues of law. See Phinney v. Shoshone Medical Center, 131 Idaho 529, 531, 960 P.2d 1258, 1260 (1998)

. See also, Tonahill v. LeGrand Johnson Const. Co., 131 Idaho 737, 739, 963 P.2d 1174, 1176 (1998); Mancilla v. Greg, 131 Idaho 685, 687 963 P.2d 368, 370 (1998).

In Idaho State Insurance Fund v. Hunnicutt, 110 Idaho 257, 715 P.2d 927 (1985), this Court described the appropriate test for substantial and competent evidence for the purposes of judicial review of an administrative agency's action as follows:

The "substantial evidence rule" is said to be a "middle position" which precludes a de novo hearing but which nonetheless requires a serious review which goes beyond the mere ascertainment of procedural regularity. Such a review requires more than a mere "scintilla" of evidence in support of the agency's determination, though "something less than the weight of the evidence." "Put simply," we wrote, "the substantial evidence rule requires a court to determine `whether [the agency's] findings of fact are reasonable.'"

110 Idaho at 260, 715 P.2d at 930 (citations omitted).

A. Substantial Evidence Exists To Support The Commission's Finding That Mulder's Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Constituted An Occupational Disease.

Liberty asserts that the Commission erred when it found that Mulder's carpel tunnel syndrome was an "occupational disease" because Mulder offered no proof that his carpal tunnel syndrome was peculiar to his job at Liberty, or that he distinguished his particular job requirements from the general run of occupations.

Idaho worker's compensation law provides benefits to persons suffering injury or disablement due to a work-related accident or occupational disease. See I.C. §§ 72-102(17)(b), (21)(a); 72-432; 72-437. An "occupational disease" as defined by the worker's compensation law is:

[A] disease due to the nature of an employment in which the hazards of such disease actually exist, are characteristic of, and peculiar to the trade, occupation, process, or employment, but shall not include psychological injuries, disorders or conditions unless the conditions set forth in section 72-451, Idaho Code, are met.

I.C. § 72-102(21)(a) (emphasis added).

There is no dispute among the parties that Mulder suffered from bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. This Court has previously determined that carpal tunnel syndrome may constitute an occupational disease within the meaning of the worker's compensation law. See Blang v. Liberty Northwest Ins. Corp., 125 Idaho 275, 277, 869 P.2d 1370, 1372 (1994)

; Kinney v. Tupperware Co., 117 Idaho 765, 768, 792 P.2d 330, 333 (1990).

The Commission has wide discretion in making factual determinations regarding worker's compensation claims. However, before this Court can appropriately determine whether the Commission's findings were supported by substantial evidence, we must determine whether the correct legal standard governing available discretionary alternatives was applied. See Vernon v. Omark Industries, 113 Idaho 358, 360, 744 P.2d 86, 88 (1987)


This Court has previously discussed how the statutory phrase "characteristic of, and peculiar to" is to be construed. In Bowman v. Twin Falls Const. Co., Inc., 99 Idaho 312, 581 P.2d 770 (1978), we adopted the construction given by the Supreme Court of Michigan in holding that:

The phrase, "peculiar to the occupation," is not here used in the sense that the disease must be one which originates exclusively from the particular kind of employment in which the employee is engaged, but rather in the sense that the conditions of that employment must result in a hazard which distinguishes it in character from the general run of occupations.

99 Idaho at 323, 581 P.2d at 781, overruled on other grounds, DeMain v. Bruce McLaughlin Logging, 132 Idaho 782, 979 P.2d 655 (1999)

(emphasis in original).

Liberty asserts that in the context of carpal tunnel syndrome, Bowman does not provide adequate guidance to determine whether the disease is caused by exposure to hazards which are characteristic of, and peculiar to the claimant's trade or occupation. Specifically, Liberty argues that applying the Bowman test is inappropriate in carpal tunnel syndrome claims because such claims involve exposure to hazards which are common to the activities of day to day living, and are indistinguishable from the vast majority of other occupations. Liberty asks this Court to take judicial notice of the fact that virtually all employees drive, write, and keyboard.

While it is noted that a great number of occupations require an employee to drive, write or use a computer keyboard, an equally great number do not. It is the rare case that manufacturing, assembly line or construction employees are called upon as a requisite of their employment to operate an automobile, take extensive notes or utilize a computer keyboard. Moreover, the vast number of occupations which may require one or more of these activities likely do not require all of them. Therefore, we disagree with Liberty's assertion and hold that the test set out in Bowman is properly applied to worker's compensation claims involving carpal tunnel syndrome.

Applying the test from Bowman, the Commission found the hazards that Mulder was exposed to during his work at Liberty could be distinguished from the general run of occupations. The Commission determined that exposure to long periods of repetitive upper extremity motions, including writing, keyboarding, and gripping of a steering wheel are not characteristic of all occupations. The Commission based its factual...

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