IBM Cleared of Liability in Minnesota RSI Case : Ergonomics: While the verdict was a resounding victory for PC makers, hundreds of repetitive-strain injury suits are pending.


One of the first legal tests of computer manufacturers’ liability for so-called repetitive-strain injuries ended in a resounding industry victory Wednesday when a Minnesota jury cleared IBM Corp. of any responsibility for the injuries suffered by a former high school secretary who used a personal computer.

Last year, a jury cleared Compaq Computer Corp. in a similar case, but hundreds of other RSI lawsuits are still awaiting trial. RSI is the nation’s fastest-growing occupational injury, and a wide variety of equipment manufacturers face a potentially enormous liability problem if they are found to be responsible for the problem.

Following an eight-week trial, the four-man, four-woman jury in Minnesota deliberated less than three hours before delivering their verdict in a lawsuit brought by 30-year-old Nancy Urbanski. The jury found no liability and awarded no damages.


Urbanski suffered what she said was debilitating pain in both of her arms in July, 1991, after three years of using IBM and Apple personal computers as a secretary at a high school in Eagan, Minn. After she could no longer perform her secretarial duties, she was shunted off to a variety of different jobs that didn’t require using a computer and was dismissed in 1993. Despite treatment, she says, her injuries have left her unable to perform simple household chores.

She sued, alleging that IBM and Apple Computer Inc. had known for years of the health risk caused by the frequent use of computer keyboards and had hidden those risks from consumers. She sought compensatory damages of more than $400,000 from both IBM and Apple, and a victory would also have opened the companies up to punitive-damage claims.

On Feb. 27, Apple settled the case, saying it was forced to do so because of a legal technicality: The company’s outside counsel had failed to supply a document relating to the case during disclosure. Apple remains unrepentant regarding repetitive-strain injuries and says it is prepared to continue fighting the charges had the incident not occurred. A source said Apple was required to pay Urbanski’s legal fees.

Urbanski’s attorney, Michael Sieben, said that “it’s not unusual” for early cases like that of his client’s to be unsuccessful because they involve educating a jury on a health hazard they knew little about.

Complicating Urbanski’s claims were injuries she sustained in a 1985 automobile accident. That, and the birth of her two sons, aged 10 and 6, required her to seek treatment from a chiropractor.

“This was a case of muscle and tendon injuries,” Sieben said. “If it had been nerve damage, or nerve damage that required surgery, the outcome might have been different.” An appeal is being considered, he added.


Urbanski expressed disappointment with the verdict. “It’s a very real and disabling problem across the country,” Urbanski said, adding that she has received many supportive letters and calls during the trial.

“I truly believe in the end the plaintiffs will prevail. It will just take a little longer than expected.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, the number of RSI sustained in private industry grew by 770% in the last decade. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has drawn up a draft of workplace recommendations for the prevention of RSI, and public hearings on the document are expected to begin shortly.

The computer industry, though vehement in asserting that computer use is safe, is wary of the potential liability. Although it prevailed in its initial RSI lawsuit, Compaq Computer has placed warning labels on its PCs.

And few expect the outcome of the early cases to put an end to RSI claims. “I would hope that we would see a much more sober and rational approach to this issue by OSHA and that we would see the end to these kinds of lawsuits,” said Baruch Fellner, a labor partner with the Washington office of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. “But two cases don’t a trend make.”