Mental Injury Cases in PA Workers’ Compensation Are Very Fact Specific

In Pennsylvania workers’ compensation, physical and mental injuries are treated very differently.  Is that fair?  Probably not, but that is the law with which we are left.

A physical injury, like a herniated disc in the neck or back, a rotator cuff tear in the shoulder or a ligament tear in a knee, are compensable under the PA Workers’ Compensation Act (Act), as long as the injured worker was within the scope and course of his or her employment at the time of the injury.  A mental injury, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depression, on the other hand, must be due to “abnormal working conditions” to be compensable (unless resulting from a physical injury).

It is the interpretation of this phrase, “abnormal working conditions,” upon which such a case turns.  As the court decisions have taught us, that phrase is very fact specific.

Recently, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania issued a decision in the case of Premium Transportation Staffing, Inc. v. Robert Welker (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board).  Here, the injured worker was a truck driver.  In his training, in 2011, the driver learned how to deal with truck fires.  While driving a tractor trailer on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 2015, going up a hill at approximately 25 miles per hour, the injured worker observed “flames outside the truck reflected in the passenger side mirror. After Claimant completed the stop, smoke began to enter the cab from the passenger side window.”  This was after his yellow, and then red, “check engine” light came on.  The injured worker safely pulled to the side of the road, exited the cab, and walked a safe distance away.  Another truck driver pulled over and extinguished the fire, using his own fire extinguisher and then Claimant’s.

The injured worker filed a Claim Petition, seeking benefits for PTSD as a result of this fire.  Since there was no physical injury alleged, this was considered a mental/mental claim (a mental stimulus causing a mental injury).  As noted above, the key issue then became whether “abnormal working conditions” were present.  A decision was issued by the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ), granting the Claim Petition.    Specifically, the WCJ concluded that “the truck fire at issue falls into the category of a highly unusual and singular event.”

On appeal to the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB), the decision of the WCJ was affirmed.  The WCAB noted that it had to defer to the factual findings of the WCJ with regard to whether there was an “abnormal working condition.”

This was then appealed to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, who reversed the decision, finding that there was NOT an “abnormal working condition” established on these facts.  The Court found that such a question is not a finding of fact (which cannot be disturbed upon appeal), but, instead, it is a question of law (which is fully reviewable by the appellate courts).

Under a case decided by the Supreme Court of PA in 2013 (Payes v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Pennsylvania State Police)). The standard for an “abnormal working condition” is whether there is “the existence of an extraordinarily unusual and distressing single work-related event experienced by [the claimant], resulting in his disabling mental condition, where such single and comprehensive work-related event constituted an abnormal working condition as a matter of law.”

The Court, as is the law, accepted the factual findings of the WCJ.  However, these facts, said the Court, could not rise to this level.  The Court noted, “Here, Claimant experienced an employment event that was not an everyday occurrence, and it was singular for him. However, the truck fire he experienced bears little semblance to the ‘extraordinarily unusual’ events that occurred” in other cases finding such abnormal working conditions.

Of significance, the Court further observed “the record established that in Claimant’s ‘line of work,’ truck drivers ‘experience’ and ‘anticipate’ fires” and that the fire at issue was a very minor one.  The very presence of a fire extinguisher in Claimant’s truck (and the one used by the bystander from his own truck) were said to be further proof of the foreseeability.

The Court explained that the factual findings of the WCJ do not support the granting of the Claim Petition, and that the WCJ apparently only granted the petition due to a misunderstanding of the required standard.  “Notably, the WCJ agreed with Employer that the fire was something Claimant could anticipate and prepare for but believed, incorrectly, that Payes rendered those factors irrelevant.”

From this decision, we take away the clear advice that the finding of an “abnormal working condition” will vary greatly from case to case, from job to job and situation to situation, depending on the particular facts involved.  While we all like an element of certainty to which we can cling, that is just not something we will find on this issue.

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