Psychological Injury in PA Workers’ Comp for Police Officer Very High Standard

We have discussed psychological injuries in the Pennsylvania workers’ compensation system in previous blog entries. We have even discussed our own cases in this area. The theme throughout this aspect of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act is the requirement that the psychological injury be caused by “abnormal working conditions.”

Whether the injured worker was exposed to “abnormal working conditions” depends on the type of job the injured worker performs. What may be common and expected in one field, may be abnormal to another.

As you may expect, police officers, firemen, rescue workers and other first responders are held to a higher standard, since they can be expected to face conditions far more traumatic or upsetting than an accountant or a secretary, for example.

Recently, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania issued a decision in the matter of Washington v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Cmwlth of PA State Police). In this case, the injured worker was a Field Trooper for the Pennsylvania State Police, who, on occasion, worked as a photographer for the Forensic Services Unit. While in this role, the injured worker was exposed to three homicide investigations, which required him to photograph murder victims, including a burned corpse and an infant. As a result of his work on the Forensic Services Unit, the injured worker developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) denied the Claim Petition filed by the injured worker, finding that the conditions faced by him were not “abnormal” for a person in his field. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) affirmed this decision on appeal.

On appeal to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, the injured worker argued, essentially, that these conditions were not “normal” and that the WCJ failed to account for his pre-existing psychological condition. The Court affirmed the decision of the WCJ, finding that the evidence of record showed that a member of the Forensic Services Unit of the Pennsylvania State Police could expect to see conditions such as these, and that a pre-existing psychological condition does not remove the need for an injured worker in PA to prove that “abnormal working conditions” led to his psychological injury.

Once again, the Court demonstrates the difficulty of winning a claim for psychological injury in PA workers’ comp. As attorneys representing injured workers, this is troubling for us. In basic fairness, why should psychological injury be treated differently than physical injury? The PA workers’ compensation system is said to be a “no fault” system. If a worker walks into a wall and breaks his arm, that is a valid workers’ comp claim. It just seems fundamentally unfair to treat psychological injuries so differently.