Cumulative Trauma that leads to a California Workers’ Compensation Claim


In the context of California workers compensation law, an injury is cumulative when it includes:

“repetitive mentally or physically traumatic activities extending over a period of time, the combined effect of which causes any disability or need for medical treatment.”1

A cumulative trauma is contrasted with a specific injury, which is one single incident.

Because it is not a single incident, an employee may not know he or she has a cumulative trauma until he or she is told by a doctor.

This means that it could be years after an employee stops working before he or she realizes that there is an injury caused by work.

An employee has one year from learning the cumulative trauma injury was caused by work to file a workers' compensation claim.

In this article our California personal injury lawyers will discuss:

1. What is a cumulative trauma injury?

Work injuries are most commonly thought of as a single event such as a fall or an injury that occurs while lifting something.

But injuries don't always occur on a specific day, at a specific time. There are also injures that happen over a longer period of time.

In California workers' compensation, there are two types of work injuries:

  • A specific injury
  • A cumulative trauma

Example: Mike injures his back from lifting a sixty-pound box. This is a specific injury.

Example: Mike injures his back from lifting ten-pound boxes every day for eight months. This is a cumulative trauma injury.

Both of these injuries are due to Mike's work. But the cause is different.

A cumulative trauma is a repetitive event.2 It is a culmination of thousands of insignificant movements that by themselves would not cause an injury, but together cause injury to a part of body.

The time period for a cumulative trauma is the time the injured worker is doing the work that is causing the injury and ends when there is disability or need for medical treatment.

The disability can be temporary disability or permanent disability

Example: Heather works as a mail carrier from January 20, 2008 to December 10, 2015. She stops working on December 10, 2015 due to pain in her right knee.

The time of Heather's cumulative trauma exposure is from January 20, 2008 to December 10, 2015.

A cumulative trauma must be examined separately from a specific injury because if the injury is over a period of time:

  1. it could be from working at more than one job
  2. the injured worker may not be aware of the injury and needs a longer time to file a claim than he or she would need for a specific injury

Starting in 2020 through 2024, for certain firefighters and peace officers, "injury" also includes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).3

1.1. What is a "specific" work injury?

A specific injury is the result of one incident that causes disability or need for medical treatment.4

It is unlikely that an employee would be unaware of a specific injury because a single incident is hard to miss. If an employee slips and falls or feels a sharp pain in his or her back while lifting a box, the cause of the injury is clear. The employee has the responsibility to tell his or her employer what happened.

In a cumulative trauma situation, there isn't a single incident. Whatever exposure is occurring or damage being done may not be clear until much later.

Even if there are symptoms, the cause may be hard to figure out.

Common cumulative trauma orthopedic injuries include:

Example: Jaime works as an administrative assistant for a law firm for 12 years. She began to get pain in her wrists during work. She eventually had pain all the time.

Jaime's doctor said her wrist pain was carpal tunnel syndrome from repetitively typing at work.

Common cumulative internal injuries include:

  • Lung and breathing issues from exposure to dust/chemicals
  • Heart disease from continued stress

Example: Frank was a mechanic for 20 years and was exposed to exhaust while working a garage. He developed lung cancer.

The medical evidence showed that inhaling the vehicle exhaust was the cause of Frank's lung cancer.

2. Statute of limitations for a cumulative trauma work injury

If an injured worker does not make a claim for benefits from a work injury within a certain period of time, also known as the “Statute of limitations,” he or she can be prevented from receiving any benefits.

The statute of limitations in California for a workers' compensation claim is one year from the date of injury.5

The statute of limitations protects the insurance company from having to defend a claim long after the evidence to defend it is gone. However, an injured worker is not responsible for notifying anyone until he or she knows that the injury was caused by work.6

Since it can be hard for an injured worker to know if he or she has a cumulative trauma, the date of injury and statute of limitations needs to be adjusted for cumulative trauma cases beyond the period of exposure.

Example: Alicia could not work due to severe back pain. Sixteen months after she stopped working she becomes aware that the injury was caused by her work. She files a workers' compensation claim.

The insurance company says that because Alicia had not worked in 16 months, the one-year statute of limitations had run out, and her ability to file a claim had expired.

But Alicia can still file her claim because the date of injury is the date that she became aware her injury was caused by work, not when she stopped working. Even though this was 16 months after she stopped working,7 the one year statute of limitations did not start until 16 months after later.

Example: Kyle, a machinist, has emphysema and stops working. He does not know if his emphysema was caused by work. He has no reason to think dusty conditions at work was the cause until he reads a newspaper article about it three years after he stops working.8 He then files a claim and is within the statute of limitations.

Example: Jack was security guard who has heart attack and stops working. He does not know it could have been caused by work until four years later when a doctor tells him.9 Jack is allowed to file a cumulative trauma claim.

3. What is the date of injury of a cumulative trauma?

The date of injury of a cumulative trauma is when:

  • There is disability

and the employee:

  • Knew the injury was caused by work; or
  • Should have known the injury was caused by work10 11

Many people, even attorneys, confuse the time period of a cumulative trauma exposure with the date of injury of a cumulative trauma.

The purpose of moving the date of injury for the statute of limitations is to ensure that no employee is barred from getting workers' compensation benefits before he or she is aware they have an injury.12

The one-year statute of limitations for filing a workers' compensation claim for a cumulative trauma does not start until the injured worker knows the injury is from work.

Example: Jennifer has worked in an assembly plant since 2010. She has severe headaches. Due to the headaches she stops working on March 3, 2016. On November 2, 2017 a doctor tells her that the headaches were caused by a chemical she was exposed to at work.

The period she was working and exposed to the chemicals that caused her headaches was between 2010 and March 3, 2016.

However, she does not find out if her headaches were caused by work until she goes to the doctor on November 2, 2017. This means the date of injury is from 2010 to November 2, 2017.

For the one-year statute of limitations, she would have until November 2, 2018 to file her claim.

An injured worker does not have to be working to file a claim for a California workers' compensation for cumulative trauma injury. It doesn't matter if the injured worker is retired.13

4. Is a work injury a specific injury or cumulative trauma?

A determination of whether an injury is specific or cumulative is decided by the court.14

The term “trauma” can mean injuries of force, including blows, falls, cuts, twists, or strains that cause physical damage.15 Any injury could potentially be a cumulative trauma.

4.1. Why does it matter if an injured worker has a cumulative trauma or specific injury?

If an injury is a cumulative trauma it may come from more than one employer.

Example: Alan worked as a roofer for A1 Roofing for 5 months. He then got a job with ZZ Roofing and worked for 4 months. He then had to stop working because of increasing pain in his back and right shoulder.

Alan's doctor says he has a cumulative trauma. Alan files a claim against both A1 Roofing and ZZ Roofing.

5. How to file a cumulative trauma claim in California?

If an employee believes he or she has suffered a cumulative trauma claim, it is important to pursue it no matter how long ago the job that caused it might have been.

The statute of limitations allows a significant amount of time to file a claim.

It is important to see a doctor to find out if the medical cause is from work.

Once a doctor has decided an injury is from work, an Injured worker needs to understand how to file a workers' compensation claim

Call us for help...

For help with filing a claim, completing workers comp forms or representation at a workers compensation trial, contact us at (855) LAW-FIRM. Our firm helps police officersfirefighters and other workers to get compensation for their job-related injuries.

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Legal References:

  1. Cal. Lab. Code § 3208.1(b)

  2. Western Growers Ins. Co. v. Workers' Comp. Appeals Bd. (1993) 16 Cal. App. 4th 227, 234.

  3. Chavez v. Workmen's Comp. Appeals Bd. (1973) 31 Cal. App. 3d 5, 11; California Senate Bill 542 (2019).

  4. Cal. Lab. Code § 3208.1(a).

  5. Cal. Lab. Code § 5405.

  6. Davies v. Krasna, (1975) 14 Cal. 3d 502, 512.

  7. Chavez v. Workmen's Comp. Appeals Bd. (1973) 31 Cal. App. 3d 5.

  8. Chambers v. WCAB (1968) 33 Cal. Comp. Cases 722.

  9. Los Angeles v. WCAB (1978) 88 Cal. App. 3d 19.

  10. Cal. Lab. Code § 3208.1(b).

  11. Cal. Lab. Code § 5412.

  12. Los Angeles, supra at p. 27.

  13. Permanente Medical Group v. Workers' Comp. Appeals Bd. (1985) 171 Cal. App. 3d 1171, 1180 fn.4.

  14. Aetna Cas. & Surety Co. v. Workmen's Comp. Appeals Bd. (1973) 35 Cal. App. 3d 329, 341.

  15. Id. at p. 340.

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