RSI is not in the mind, judge rules

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A SENIOR Court of Appeal judge ruled yesterday that repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a real physical illness and not a disease of the mind.

Upholding a pounds 60,000 damages claim by five former Midland Bank employees, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith threw out an argument by the bank's lawyers that the injuries were psychological in origin.

Medical negligence lawyers welcomed the decision which, they said, now settled the matter of the legal status of RSI. Last year the High Court ruled against five journalists who brought claims of RSI against the Financial Times. This followed a decision in October 1996 when Judge Prosser, in a claim brought against Reuters, famously declared that RSI did not exist.

The five women employees, who worked part-time for the Midland bank (now HSBC) at its processing centre in Frimley, Surrey, successfully argued in a lower court in May last year that they developed pains in their necks, arms and hands after being asked to reach high speeds typing data into computers. They said that they were given six months' training and were then expected to reach a required speed or they would be sacked.

Midland argued at the Court of Appeal test case that the painful condition was "psychogenic" and not caused by any physical or organic factors.

The women operators, who worked on encoding machines, had not established that they had suffered any injury compensatable in law, William Stephenson QC, for the bank, told the court.

But Lord Justice Stuart-Smith said the bank's appeal must fail after Judge Byrt QC ruled in the Mayor's and City of London Court that the injuries were physical.

He added: "There was abundant evidence that the defendant [the bank] was well aware of the risk. The problem was that that awareness, for some reason, had not reached those in charge at Frimley."

Peter Woods, a litigation partner at the law firm Stephens Innocent and the lawyer who advised the Financial Times journalists last year, said yesterday that the decision was a real boost to all RSI sufferers seeking compensation. "We have been vexed by inconsistent decisions of the High Court. It is good news that the Court of Appeal has given guidance on this issue," he said, adding: "Medical science has not caught up with the nature of the condition."

The women's union, Unifi (formerly Bifu), also welcomed the judgment. "This judgment shows that RSI is a very real industrial injury and employers are liable for the damage they cause to their staff," said a negotiator, Linda Gregory.

The union said the outcome will strengthen its call for RSI to become a recognised industrial injury.

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy said the judgment reflected the growing weight of evidence that RSI was a real medical condition. "RSI must now be recognised as an industrial injury to compel employers to protect their staff," said chief executive Phil Gray.