One of our frequent topics on this blog concerns how psychological injuries are handled (or, more appropriately, mishandled) under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act. Indeed, we personally have a case in which we have requested appeal to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania addressing the burden of proof in such a case. As we have previously described, to obtain workers’ comp benefits in PA for a mental injury, from a mental stimulus, the injured worker must prove there were “abnormal” working conditions present, and that this standard varied by the occupation of the injured worker.
Cases in the Pennsylvania appellate courts have made it clear that certain occupations, such as firefighters, police officers, and other first responders, have an extremely difficult burden to prove something is “abnormal,” given how much extreme stress and shock are associated with those types of jobs. Recently, though, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed the lower tribunals, and found that a police officer was exposed to abnormal working conditions.
In the case of Payes v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Commonwealth of PA State Police), the injured worker, a state police officer, struck and killed a woman with his patrol car. The woman was apparently attempting to commit suicide by this act. As a result of this incident, the injured worker developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and was no longer able to function as a police officer.
A Claim Petition was filed and litigated before a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ). Having heard all of the evidence, the WCJ granted the Claim Petition. The WCJ determined that, while a state trooper can expect to be “exposed to vehicle accidents, mayhem, bodily injuries, death, murder, and violent acts in the normal course of their duties”, “State Troopers are not in the normal course of their duties exposed to the circumstances that occurred in this case.”
The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) reversed this decision, finding, “while being involved in a fatal accident may be traumatic and not routine for a state trooper, we cannot agree that this incident constitutes an abnormal working condition given the nature of claimant’s stressful and perilous profession.” The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the WCAB.
Appeal was accepted by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, and there the decision of the WCAB and Commonwealth Court was reversed, reinstating the decision of the WCJ, which had granted the Claim Petition. The Supreme Court observed that the findings of the WCJ, that it is not normal, even for a state trooper, to have a woman kill herself by running in front of the patrol car, was supported by the evidence and supported the finding that this was an “abnormal working condition.” Both the WCAB and Commonwealth Court broke this incident into subparts, each of which in isolation could be normal things. However, this incident, viewed as a whole, is “abnormal.” Specifically, the Court said, “The WCJ found, based on the credible evidence before him, that the type of incident in this case was not one to which state troopers are normally exposed.”
In an interesting footnote, the Court also added, “The fact that another state trooper had once struck a pedestrian does not make the incident here a ‘normal’ working condition. Abnormal working conditions need not be ‘unique’ working conditions.”
Given the fact that our case is currently awaiting a decision on our Petition for Allowance of Appeal, we believe it best not to comment in too much detail about this case, and how it may impact the case we have pending. We will, however, observe that this decision by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania strikes a blow for a humanitarian element that we always hope to find in the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act.