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Erosion of the “Abnormal Working Condition” Standard for “Mental-Mental” Work-Related Injuries

On Behalf of | May 22, 2015 | Employment / Labor, Firm News, Insurance Coverage / Insurance Defense, Risk Management

For nearly three decades Martin v. Ketchum, 568 A.2d 159 (Pa. 1990) has set the standard upon which a claimant may establish a compensable psychological injury as a result of a work-related mental stimulus or “mental-mental” injuries. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court drew the following line in the sand:

A claimant must produce objective evidence which is corroborative of his subjective description of the working conditions alleged to have caused the psychiatric injury. Because psychiatric injuries are by nature subjective, we believe that if a claimant has met his burden of proving the existence of a psychiatric injury, he cannot rely solely upon his own account of working environment to sustain his burden of proving that the injury was not caused by a subjective reaction to normal working conditions. A claimant’s burden of proof to recover [WC] benefits for a psychiatric injury is therefore twofold; he must prove by objective evidence that he has suffered a psychiatric injury and he must prove that such injury is other than a subjective reaction to normal working conditions.

In short, an individual’s “subjective reaction to being at work and being exposed to normal working conditions” does not form the basis for recovery.

Despite outlining the test, given the factual nature of this analysis, the Martin decision begged the question as to what was an abnormal working condition.  Subsequent courts, until recently, have consistently applied a narrow view as to what conditions were considered abnormal so as to qualify as giving rise to a compensable injury.  In the past, the WCAB has found that being robbed at gunpoint at an establishment frequently robbed, such as a liquor store, may not be an abnormal working condition.  Similarly, courts in several instances have found that police officers witnessing a shooting, becoming engaged in shootouts, or even being engaged in an eight-hour standoff with a barricaded gunman were not subjected to abnormal working conditions.

Despite the court’s generally consistent narrow approach to claims for “mental-mental” injuries, a series of recent opinions suggests that the courts are moving away from this narrow approach.

The recent string of decisions can be attributed to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Payes v. Workers’ Comp. Appeal Bd. (Commonwealth Pa State Police)(Payes II), 79 A.3d 543 (Pa. 2013).   In Payes II, a state trooper filed a claim petition asserting that he sustained PTSD after he struck and killed a pedestrian who had run in front of his patrol car. The WCJ acknowledged that the situation did not involve an abnormal working condition as police officers are exposed to vehicle accidents, mayhem, bodily injuries, death, murder, and violent acts in the normal course of their duties.  Despite recognizing this, the WCJ found that the events did constitute an abnormal working condition as state troopers are not normally exposed to, “a mentally disturbed individual running in front of a Trooper’s vehicle while he is operating the vehicle, for no apparent reason.” Recognizing the mixed factual and legal test, the court deferred to the WCJ’s determination, upholding the award.  The court outlined an analysis which suggested a determination as to whether the mental injury “arose from “a singular, extraordinary event occurring during [the claimant’s] work shift.”

Shortly after he decision in Payes II, a second court relied upon this analysis to find another “mental-mental” injury compensable.  In PA Liquor Control Bd. v. Workers’ Comp. Appeal Bd. (Kochanowicz III), 108 A.3d 922 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2014), a retail liquor store manager was robbed at gunpoint.  Testimony established that the claimant had a gun pressed to his head and was tied up by the assailants.  In his thirty-year career, this was the first time he was robbed.  He alleged that, as a result of the incident, he suffered PTSD.  Based on prior precedent, the WCJ initially found that claimant failed to show that the robbery was an abnormal working condition.  The Judge specifically relied upon the fact that the claimant had been trained for robbery situations, and thus should have known a robbery was potentially part of the job.  On appeal, the court vacated the order in light of Payes II.

In Murphy v. Workers’ Comp. Appeal Bd. (Ace Check Cashing Inc.), 110 A.3d 227 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2015), a claim was filed by a check cashing manager who was also robbed at gunpoint.  The court vacated the WCJ’s order denying benefits, in part, because the WCJ “did not examine the actual events of the [armed robbery] to determine whether they represented ‘a singular, extraordinary event occurring during [claimant’s] work shift’ that caused claimant’s PTSD.”

Based on the Payes II decision itself, as well as the subsequent precedent, it appears that the courts have begun to broaden the potential availability of compensation for “mental-mental” injuries.  Specifically, these cases appear to have opened the door to compensation for those workers who have traditionally been denied benefits due to the nature of the job.  While the test has always been factually based, it appears that Payes II now provides a WCJ with more latitude to award benefits for “mental-mental” injuries even where the job is one which may be subject to dangerous or disturbing environments.

While Payes II appears to have lowered the bar necessary to obtain compensation for “mental-mental” injuries, it has not destroyed the fundamental test outlined in Martin.  To this end, the average claimant is stilled barred from seeking benefits for mental anguish caused as a result of his or her day-to-day job.  Nonetheless, it can be expected that claimants, especially those in high risk positions, e.g., convenience and liquor store clerks, police officers, prison guards, etc., will begin to test the extent to which Payes II has opened the door to mental injuries previously barred.

For a confidential analysis of your workers’ compensation issues, or questions about TRC’s workers’ compensation  practice area, please contact Harry Rosensteel, Esq. at (412) 316-8686 or [email protected], Margaret Hock, Esq. at (412) 316-8647 or [email protected], Linton Moyer, Esq. at (412) 316-8687 or [email protected], or Daniel Margonari, Esq. at (412) 316-8685 or [email protected].

Important NoticeThis information is intended for general guidance only, and should not be used as a substitute for specific legal advice.  For specific legal advice applicable to your situation, you should consult an attorney of your choice.  Although believed to be accurate when written, no guarantee of completeness or accuracy to your particular circumstances should be implied.  Laws, regulations, and court decisions in this area change frequently, and you should consult the attorney of your choice for up-to-date information.