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Favorable PA Decision for Mental Injury Workers' Comp Claims

Typically a worker is entitled to workers' compensation when an injury or illness is work related.  Psychological injury caused by a nonphysical event(s) in the course of employment may also entitle the worker to compensation.  In these types of cases (often termed mental/mental claims) the burden of proof for the claimant is very hard to meet.  The mental/mental claimant must demonstrate that his or her mental injury was caused by "abnormal working conditions" not subjective (biased) stresses.   The burden of proof in these types of cases is often so hard to meet (and favorable outcomes so rare) that attorneys often have second thoughts about handling these types of claims.

However, these cases are not without hope (at least here in Pennsylvania).  The recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in Payes v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Commonwealth Pa. State Police) 2013 Pa. LEXIS 2588 is one instance where the Court found in favor of the claimant and permitted the issuance of benefits for a mental injury (post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD) due to "abnormal working conditions."   

The Payes case involves a state police officer's claim for workers' compensation for mental injury (PTSD) after he hit and killed a woman with his patrol car.  The officer was on the job at the time of the incident, when without warning a woman, who was suffering from mental illness herself, jumped out in front of the Officer Payes car.  After attempting to return to work, Payes applied for workers' compensation due to the stress he suffered following the incident.  This initial application was denied.  However, in granting his later claim petition the Workers' Compensation Judge found that he suffered a mental injury as result of abnormal mental stimuli he experience in his work. 

The Judge noted that the specific stressor that Payes experienced was not one that police officers typically encounter in their employment.  The Judge described the incident as "extraordinary" and "unusual" therefore finding that Payes PTSD was caused by "abnormal working conditions."  The case was then appealed by Payes' employer (the state police) where the decision was overturned, the appeals board finding that the scenario and stress it involved did not amount to "abnormal working conditions."  Payes then appealed the decision to the Commonwealth Court, which again held that his claim did not meet the strict standard. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court then heard the matter in May of this year.  The Court highlighted that there is no hard and fast rule on what constitutes "abnormal working conditions" to justify an award of benefits on a mental/mental claim.  Instead the specifics of the work environment and the job at issue must be examined on a case-by-case basis to determine if the claimant's mental injury is one entitled to compensation.  Under such an analysis the facts are crucial.  Accordingly, the Court in Payes found that the facts established by the workers' compensation judge (which were favorable to Paye) would be given great weight.  Based on the workers' compensation judge's set of facts, the Supreme Court ultimately found in favor of Payes (the claimant).

The case is helpful for workers' compensation attorneys (and claimants) because it establishes that a claim for a psychological injury can succeed and will not be doomed simply because the job in question involves some levels stress.  The validity of the claim will succeed or fail on the facts of each individual's case.    Favorable decisions like this one will help pave the way for other claimants suffering from on the job mental injury.

Sources:

"Injured Workers' Ability to Prove Abnormal Working Conditions", by Christian Petrucci, The Legal Intelligencer, December 5, 2013.

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