Two recent opinions from the Pennsylvania courts have opened the door for psychological injury claims caused by nonphysical events suffered in the course and scope of employment. These cases, which are very often referred to as “mental-mental” claims, require a claimant to establish that their injury was caused by an “abnormal working condition.” In other words, the claimant must establish that the injury was not caused by their own subjective stressors or hypersensitivity but by an occurrence or series of events.
The first case, Payes v. W.C.A.B. (Commonwealth Pennsylvania State Police),79 A.3d 543 (2013), dealt with a workers’ compensation claim brought by a state police officer for his mental injury (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD) after a woman committed suicide by running in front of his police cruiser. The woman, who was dressed in all black, died following the collision.
The Defendant argued that dealing with dead bodies, crime scenes, suicides and automobile accidents were all “normal working conditions” for Payes, a state trooper. The court noted that police very often deal with such scenarios, but found that the woman’s method of suicide was quite unusual, and that the specific circumstances of each claim must be considered before applying the “normal working conditions” rule to deny benefits.
In the aftermath of the Payes case, the Supreme Court also restored benefits retroactively to Gregory Kochanowicz, a manager at a state liquor store who was by a masked gun man and taped to a chair during an April 2008 robbery. Mr. Kochanowicz’s claim was denied because the Liquor Control Board argued that robberies were a “normal working condition” and, therefore his resulting mental injury (PTSD, same injury as Trooper Payes suffered) was not compensable.
Many lawyers think that you have to be “mental” to take a “mental-mental” claim as a workers’ compensation attorney. Lawyers are reluctant to handle these cases because of the high burden of proof and the difficulty involved in establishing their case. I have not shied away from “mental-mental” cases and represented two injured workers who had cases very similar to the Kochanowicz case.
My cases were similar to the Kochanowicz case and both involved armed robberies; one at a bank, and one at a drug store. Both of my clients clearly had suffered mental injuries that included PTSD, anxiety and insomnia, yet, the employers denied benefits in both cases. Ultimately, both of my clients received favorable lump sum settlements and entered into a Compromise and Release Agreements with their employers, but not before several hearings and doctors’ depositions were conducted.
At that time, and now, I believed that insurance companies defended these cases vigorously hoping that the stigma of bringing a mental health claim would lead to a claimant being less resolute in fighting for benefits. The defense that armed robberies are “normal working conditions” is frankly an astonishing defense that these entities have relied upon for some time. Claiming that training for such occurrences makes robberies a “normal working condition” has now been disregarded by the courts.
Both Payes and Kochanowicz are helpful for workers compensation claimants because they stand for the proposition that a “mental-mental” claim will not be hopeless because the job performed involves some level of stress.
If you or a loved one has suffered a “mental-mental,” or any other type of work injury – contact Norfleet and Lafferty to speak with our Pennsylvania workers’ compensation lawyers today. Our Dauphin County workers compensation attorneys in Harrisburg and Lemoyne will answer all of your questions and lead you through the complex workers’ compensation process. Call (717) 737-7574 or fill out our case evaluation form.