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Digital off hook for RSIs

A federal jury rules Digital Equipment is not responsible for the injuries of nine office workers who used its keyboards.

In another setback for computer users taking aim at PC makers for repetitive stress injuries, a federal jury ruled today that Digital Equipment is not responsible for the injuries of nine office workers who used its keyboards, the company said.

Although so-called RSI cases against computer equipment makers have been on the wane for the past year, the trial against Digital was being watched carefully by the industry. Keyboard-related injuries are on the rise, and one plaintiff had won a $5.3 million judgment in an earlier court proceeding--one of the largest of its kind. The verdict later was set aside and the case was retried, culminating in today's decision.

The decision by the ten-person jury in Brooklyn, New York, was likely to blunt similar types of suits in the future, according to Ken King, an attorney representing Compaq Computer, which has acquired Digital.

"This verdict sends a loud and clear message to lawyers who have brought these cases that they won't be successful before jurors," said King, an attorney with Brobeck, Phleger, & Harrison in New York.

In court, King argued that there was no scientific evidence proving that computer keyboards were a "substantial factor" in the plaintiffs' injuries--a claim that was one of the key issues in the case.

David Johnson, a Fenwick & West attorney representing technology companies who is not involved in the case, agreed.

The verdict "may not be the nail in the coffin for product liability as to the design or manufacture of keyboards, but it's indicative of the complexity" of bringing such cases, he said. "You can't just point to the keyboard and say, 'That's how I got RSI.'"

Johnson added it is difficult to isolate any one factor as the primary cause of an injury. The design of a worker's chair and desk, as well as the employee's specific habits, could also be significant causes, he noted.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs were not immediately available for comment.

But in closing arguments yesterday, Steven Phillips, an attorney with Levy, Phillips, & Konigsberg who is representing the plaintiffs in the case, told jurors that they need not find that the keyboards were the sole or dominant cause of the injuries, but merely one of the causes.

"As long as you find it's one factor, they're on the hook for what they did," he said.

The case is only the latest setback for plaintiffs going up against computer makers. Of some 31 RSI cases against computer makers that have gone to trial, about 30 have been decided in favor of the defendants, King said. He added that the verdict, which was returned after only four hours of deliberation, is good news for PC companies because it does not carve out special liabilities for their products.

With computers overtaking workplaces around the world, the incidence of repetitive motion injuries has risen dramatically. With typewriters, the manual carriage return compelled users to pause at the end of every line, but with the advent of computer word processing, uninterrupted typing has produced a slew of new, painful, and debilitating workplace injuries.

But Digital's attorney King said hardware makers should not be held responsible.

"Putting a warning on a keyboard is no different than putting a warning on any other tool, whether it be a pen or a bricklayer's trowel," he asserted, explaining that the plaintiffs had argued at trial that Digital was responsible for warning computer users of the risk of RSI. "That would mean the serious business of making warnings would be diluted and lose their meaning."

Reuters contributed to this report.