Burden of Proof Less for Physical/Mental Case in PA Workers’ Comp

Loyal readers of our blog know that it can be very difficult to have a psychological injury accepted as compensable in Pennsylvania workers’ compensation. However, what you may not realize is that psychological injuries are divided into three classes, and only one of those classes carries this higher burden of proof.

Under PA workers’ comp, a psychological injury is referred to as either mental/physical, physical/mental or mental/mental. The first meaning a mental stimulus causes a physical injury (like stress causing a heart attack), the second meaning a physical injury causes a mental injury (like depression from chronic pain), and the third meaning a psychological stimulus causes a psychological injury.

Only the mental/mental class has that increased burden of proof. As we have discussed in the past, these types of cases require a showing that the mental stimulus comes from an exposure to “abnormal working conditions.” Obviously, then, it would be very beneficial if an injured worker could move his or her case into the physical/mental category. Recently, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania addressed the distinction between the two.

In New Enterprises Stone & Lime Co. v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Kalmanowicz), the injured worker was driving a truck when an oncoming vehicle veered into his lane, causing a head-on crash, which killed the other driver. The injured worker was bruised, but was not physically disabled by the collision. As one might imagine, however, the injured worker did develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and that condition rendered him unable to perform his driving job.

The Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) granted the Claim Petition, finding the injury to fall under the physical/mental classification (meaning there was no requirement that “abnormal working conditions” be shown). This was affirmed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board.

Upon further appeal, Commonwealth Court also affirmed. The Court rejected the employer’s contention that physical/mental injuries require the physical injury to be significant. Specifically, the Court observed that the physical injury, in a physical/mental situation, need not be disabling. The burden is simply to prove that “a physical stimulus resulted in a mental disability.” Since the collision in this case was certainly a physical stimulus, and the WCJ found the mental disability was related to the collision, the Court concluded that the WCJ was correct in granting the Claim Petition.