Workers’ Compensation and Psychological Injuries

Workers’ Compensation and Psychological Injuries

Posted: August, 2013

In Armstrong v. John R. Jurgensen Co., 136 Ohio St.3d 58, 2013-Ohio-2237, July 2013 WCB p. 1 (6/4/13), the Ohio Supreme Court further limited the availability of workers’ compensation benefits to workers suffering psychological injuries due to their employment.

Armstrong involved a worker who suffered both a physical injury and a psychological injury (post traumatic stress disorder, referred to as PTSD) after a work-related car accident. The Industrial Commission allowed his claim for PTSD, but the employer appealed the allowance to court.

The issue did not involve whether Armstrong suffered PTSD due to his employment. The employer’s doctor testified that Armstrong suffered PTSD due to the accident, but not due to the physical injuries. The question was whether Armstrong could receive workers’ compensation benefits for the psychological injury he suffered in his employment.

The workers’ compensation system does provide benefits to workers who suffer psychological injuries — but with a catch. R.C. 4123.01(C) defines what injuries the workers’ compensation system compensates. R.C. 4123.01(C), excludes psychiatric conditions from coverage “except where the claimant’s psychiatric conditions have arisen from an injury or occupational disease sustained by that claimant.”

This restriction discriminates against workers who suffer a psychological injury with no physical cause — there is no reasonable basis for denying such workers from participation in the workers’ compensation system. If the system could not determine eligibility and provide compensation for psychiatric conditions, why would it permit some injured workers (those who suffer a physical injury which causes the psychological conditions) to participate?

The Supreme Court had to determine whether the statutory restriction only requires an injured worker to suffer a physical injury in the incident which caused the psychological injury, or whether the statute requires that the physical injury cause the psychological injury.

The Supreme Court’s decision recognizes that Armstrong suffered PTSD due to an accident which occurred during his employment. Since the purpose of the workers’ compensation system is to provide compensation to workers who suffer an injury in their employment that should result in a finding that Armstrong suffered a compensable injury.

The Court could have decided that an injured worker such as Armstrong, who suffered a physical injury in an incident which then caused him to suffer a psychological condition, can participate for the psychological condition because they suffered a physical injury. As Justice Pfeifer pointed out in his dissenting opinion, such a decision would have satisfied the statutory language stating that a psychological condition must have “arisen from” a physical injury by demonstrating the relationship between the psychological injury and the employment.

Unfortunately, the Court chose to interpret “arisen from” to mean “caused by” which, as Justice Pfeifer notes, is not what the statute says.

Why should the Court interpret the statute to exclude workers who suffer psychiatric injuries in their employment from workers’ compensation coverage when they also suffer a physical injury? Workers’ compensation exists to provide compensation for injuries suffered due to the employment. The Court could have recognized that permitting coverage to injured workers like Armstrong is consistent with the purpose of workers’ compensation and read the statute to permit coverage when a worker suffers a contemporaneous physical injury. As Justice O’Neill recognized in his dissenting opinion,

it is wholly irrelevant whether the psychological condition arose from the accident or from the trauma and drama incident to the allowed physical injuries. Either way he was injured in the course and scope of his employment. It is that simple.

Information courtesy of the Ohio Workers’ Compensation Bulletin. Subscribe to the Ohio Workers’ Compensation Bulletin to keep informed about the Ohio workers’ compensation system.