Amtrak yesterday won a jury verdict against an employee in its Washington area headquarters who alleged she was left substantially disabled because of her repetitive use of a computer keyboard.
Debra Haririnia, who claimed she was left unable to lift heavy objects and perform delicate tasks, charged that Amtrak was negligent in failing to provide her with a safe workplace.
She also charged that the company failed to train her or warn her about avoiding certain positions at the keyboard that might have prevented her disability.
Called carpal tunnel syndrome, the condition is an inflammation of the wrist muscles that can result from repetitive motions at a keyboard or on a factory assembly line. The condition can be crippling and can require surgery.
Haririnia, who was 34 when she was first diagnosed with the condition three years ago, sued Amtrak for more than $825,000 in damages. She may be held liable by the company for costs of its defense.
The U.S. District Court jury said Amtrak provided "a reasonably safe workplace and equipment" and that her working conditions did not contribute to her injuries.
The verdict comes at a time of increased concern about video display terminals and their effect on worker safety. With millions of workers spending hours every day in front of computer terminals, claims are increasing from employees who complain of eye, neck, back and wrist strain.
"The case illustrates the difficulty of assigning responsibility in the information-based workplace of the future," said Peter D. Weddle, chief executive officer of University Research Corp., a human resources consulting firm in Bethesda. "It's very difficult to know where individual responsibility ends and corporate responsibility begins in the interface between humans and machines."
City supervisors in San Francisco addressed the issue of VDTs and worker safety by approving a law Monday that would force employers to spend millions of dollars to provide such things as swivel chairs and computer screen glare shields for workers who are at a computer more than four hours a day. A similar ordinance was overturned last year in New York's Suffolk County.
Haririnia, who was hired by Amtrak in 1978, was diagnosed as having carpal tunnel syndrome in her right and left wrists, according to her pretrial statement.
The case was filed in late 1989 under the Federal Employee Liability Act, which is the workmen's compensation act of the railroad industry.
It was the first such VDT-related claim brought under the act in the District of Columbia.
"It's a trendy complaint these days," said Donald M. Gilberg, senior partner at Gilberg & Kurent, the D.C. law firm that tried the case for Amtrak. "Our position is that the use of keyboards is not forceful enough to cause cumulative trauma. It can come from all sorts of things."
Sue Martin, a spokeswoman for Amtrak, said such claims "have not been a big issue here."
Amtrak said it uses "state-of-the-art" workstations with International Business Machines Corp. computers and that the equipment has not changed significantly since the time Haririnia started working for the railroad.
Haririnia was represented by the law firm of Ashcraft & Gerel, one of the largest law firms in the Washington area specializing in workers' compensation and personal injury. The firm said it had no comment on the outcome.