Pennsylvania Supreme Court Issues Significant Ruling in Favor of Injured State Trooper

                In Pennsylvania, proving entitlement to workers compensation benefits when one has suffered a purely psychiatric or psychological injury without physical injury or physical sequelae is difficult.  The reason:  the worker must establish that the psychological or psychiatric injury was caused by an “abnormal working condition”.

For police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians establishing abnormal working conditions has been extremely difficult due to the nature of their jobs.  The Pennsylvania courts have held that stressful and life-threatening events and occurrences (which often lead to purely psychological and psychiatric injuries) are “expected and anticipated due to the nature of the employment”.  (See Young v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (New Sewickey Police Department), 737 A.2d 317, 322 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1999)).

However, a recent ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court gives some hope to the men and women who work to keep the rest of us safe.  On October 30, 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Payes v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Commonwealth of PA State Police), 50 MAP 201 (PA Oct. 30,2013) reversed the Commonwealth Court and held that State Police Officer Philip Payes suffered a work-related mental injury and disability as a result of an abnormal working condition.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court specifically found that the “well-supported facts” of this case demonstrated that Officer Payes had encountered an abnormal work situation (even for a state trooper) which resulted in his mental injury and disability.

On the day of the injury, a woman intentionally ran in front of Officer Payes’ patrol car apparently to commit suicide.  The woman was killed when the patrol car struck her.  Officer Payes unsuccessfully tried to resuscitate the woman he just killed all while diverting traffic away from the scene.

Officer Payes did not suffer any physical injury as a result of this incident.  However, the Workers Compensation Judge (“WCJ”) accepted as credible the testimony of the medical experts presented by Officer Payes as to his mental condition. The WCJ found that Officer Payes did suffer a mental injury as a result of this incident and was unable to perform his job duties due to such mental injury.

The employer argued that the encounter with the woman was not an “abnormal working condition”.  The employer’s fact witness testified that state troopers expect to encounter or be involved in violent situations and fatalities, including automobile fatalities.  The witness also testified that a very similar incident happened before to another state trooper and that Officer Payes was aware of the prior incident.  The WCJ, despite this testimony, found that this particular incident was not “one normally encountered by or expected of state troopers”.  The WCJ specifically held that state troopers are not, in the normal course of their duties, exposed to a mentally disturbed individual running in front of their vehicle for no apparent reason.  The WCJ further held that what occurred after the impact did not constitute normal working conditions; namely, the Officer attempting but failing resuscitation of the individual he just killed while waiting for others to arrive and assist.  The Judge granted benefits finding that Officer Payes had suffered a mental-mental injury due to an abnormal working condition.

The Workers Compensation Appeal Board (“WCAB”) reversed the Workers Compensation Judge finding that this particular incident was not an “abnormal working condition”.  The WCAB referenced the similar incident which had occurred to another officer as presented by the employer’s fact witness.  The Board also noted the Officer’s training in the use of deadly force and held that encounters with fatalities “were a foreseeable part of the job and not an unheard occurrence”.

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the decision of the WCAB.  The Commonwealth Court held that a police officer “can be expected to be witness to horrible tragedy” which includes “responding to motor vehicle accidents in an emergency capacity”.   The Commonwealth Court further held that an officer may “be subjected to traumatic visuals such as injured children, maimed adults, and unfortunately death” and that it was not “beyond the realm of possibility for an officer to have to take someone’s life”.

The Commonwealth Court then stated that the fact pattern at issue began with the “ordinary task” of the officer driving to his station.  Although the officer struck the woman, the Commonwealth Court noted that he “responded to the emergency situation just as he would have responded to any other accident scene”.  The Commonwealth Court went on to state that but for the part that the officer was the one who struck the woman, “there would be no question that any resulting psychological injury would not be compensable”.

The Supreme Court emphasized that these cases are “highly fact-sensitive” and that one’s occupation as a police officer does not necessarily mean that the court can use its “subjective determination” of what can be expected of a member of that class.  The Supreme Court emphasized that the abnormal-working-conditions analysis does not end when it is established that the employee belongs to a profession that involves certain levels of stress.  The courts must analyze the doctrine under the “unique factual findings” of the case.

The Supreme Court also emphasized that the factual findings of the WCJ are to be giving great deference and can only be set aside if unsupported by the evidence or if such findings are arbitrary and capricious.  The Supreme Court stated that the WCJ found that Claimant’s PTSD was caused by a “single documented incident” which occurred while he was performing his duties as a state trooper.  The Supreme Court further wrote that “because Appellant’s injuries arose from a single incident, such inquiry rested on whether that incident alone and not any purportedly comparable set of incidents were abnormal”.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court criticized the Commonwealth Court for what it considered to be the Commonwealth Court’s effort to “compartmentalize” the facts of this incident into separate components each of which standing alone may not have been considered abnormal working conditions.  The Supreme Court stated that the Commonwealth Court viewed the “factual finding that Appellant [Officer Payes] had rendered ultimately unsuccessful first aid to the decedent as an effectively isolated event, disconnected from the fact that Appellant had been the inadvertent cause of the decedent’s injuries, the fact that the decedent had apparently chosen Appellant’s oncoming vehicle as a means to commit suicide and the fact that Appellant had to render first aid under these circumstances while simultaneously diverting traffic from the scene”.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that “the Commonwealth Court erred by not accepting the well-supported facts found by the WCJ establishing the existence of an extraordinary unusual and distressing single work-related event experienced by Appellant, resulting in his disabling mental condition, where such single and comprehensive work-related event constituted an abnormal working condition as a matter of law.

If you have suffered a psychological or psychiatric condition related to your employment or if you are a police officer, EMT or firefighter and are injured at work, it is important that you speak to a lawyer experienced in workers compensation law.  You have clearly defined rights and remedies and Pennsylvania employers have significant obligations to you.  If you would like to discuss your work injury with me, please contact me for a free and confidential consultation.  Contact John Stanzione at 610-701-4415 or by email.