Court Clarifies What is Needed for Physical/Mental Injury Under PA Workers’ Comp

Under Pennsylvania workers’ compensation law, there are three types of mental injuries. The burden of proof is different depending upon which of these types is involved. A mental injury, resulting from a mental incident, known as a “mental/mental claim,” is the one which generates the most litigation. In this type of case, the mental injury must be the result of an “abnormal working condition,” in order to be compensable. If there is a physical aspect of the injury, which then leads to a mental injury, there is less of a burden of proof than in a mental/mental claim.

Recently, in Murphy v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Ace Check Cashing Inc.), the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania dealt with two aspects of mental injuries, including how much of a physical injury is necessary to separate a mental/mental claim from a physical/mental claim.

Here, the injured worker was a general manager for a check cashing company, Upon arriving at work one day, the injured worker was first forced, at gunpoint, to open a safe, then she was hogtied. Her husband was handcuffed by the assailant and left outside. There were security procedures in place, and there had been a few previous robberies over the years. The injured worker had mild bruising from being tied up, and alleged other injuries, including to her neck, shoulders, thoracic spine, wrists, and ankles. An allegation of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was also made.

After hearing the evidence offered in the Claim Petition, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) denied the Claim Petition. Specifically, the WCJ rejected the testimony of the injured worker, and her physician, regarding her physical injuries. Though he found the psychological testimony credible, the WCJ concluded “that the robbery was not an abnormal working condition for Claimant who was a general manager for [Employer], a check cashing business.” Upon appeal, Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) affirmed. The WCAB concluded that physical injuries which did not require medical treatment would be insufficient to trigger the more lenient physical/mental claim standard. Additionally, given the security procedures and the prior robberies, the WCAB observed that “an armed robbery was foreseeable or could have been anticipated,” meaning the working conditions were not abnormal.

On further appeal, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania agreed with the WCAB, that physical contact alone is not enough to make a claim into a physical/mental claim. The Court suggested that the physical contact would require medical treatment to rise to that level. Note, however, that the Court did agree the physical injury need not be disabling.

Based on this finding, the Court turned to whether the standard was met for a mental/mental injury. The injured worker argued that the decision of the WCJ is inconsistent with the recent expanding of the concept of “abnormal working conditions,” as discussed by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in the 2013 case of Payes v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (PA State Police).

Since the decision of the WCJ predated the decision in Payes, the WCJ did not consider ” . . . the actual events of the June 19, 2010 armed robbery to determine whether they represented “a singular, extraordinary event occurring during [Claimant’s] work shift” that caused Claimant’s PTSD.” There has also been the Commonwealth Court decision of PA Liquor Control Board v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Kochanowicz) which noted, “notwithstanding the employer’s evidence that its stores had been robbed in the past and that the claimant had received some training on safely reacting to robberies, the WCJ, and this Court, had to review the particular robbery and determine whether that robbery was not a normal working condition.”

As such, the opinion of the WCJ in this case was vacated by the Court, and the matter was remanded back to the WCJ “to consider whether Claimant established, under [Payes] and [Kochanowicz], that the June 19, 2010 armed robbery that caused her PTSD was an abnormal working condition.