Generally, in Pennsylvania, the Workers’ Compensation Act does not allow for mental injuries stemming from the workplace. In other words, the legislature has been very hesitant to allow injured workers in Pennsylvania to claim a psychological injury related to work unless very specific factors are met. This makes sense that because it appears that the legislature did not want the common employee to be able to bring a claim for mental stress related to a “mean boss”, or a very stressful job. If that were the case, the courts would be flooded with thousands of disgruntled employees who simply hate either their job or their immediate supervisor. Thus, the law requires a heightened standard for mental injuries stemming from mental stimuli at work. In other words, we are talking about injuries that are psychological in nature, and caused by some type of psychological stimulus. That heightened standard, which must be proved by an employee claiming this type of so-called mental-mental injury, is an “abnormal working condition.”
It is important to distinguish between what is considered a purely mental injury, and a mental injury caused by a physical stimulus or physical injury. Generally, a psychological disability such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or anxiety caused by a physical injury is compensable and does not require the heightened standard of an “abnormal working condition.” This situation is also known as a physical-mental claim. However, an employee claiming a psychiatric disability due to emotional, nonphysical stimuli at work has a greater burden of proof than the employee claiming that a physical injury or physical stimuli resulted in emotional injury. This different burden of proof was endorsed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the case of Martin v. Ketchum, Inc., 568 A. 2d 159 (Pa. 1990). That case established that the work-related stress must be caused by an actual objective abnormal working condition as opposed to a subjective, perceived, or imagined employment event.
The above standard has been long held to mean that unless a condition is truly abnormal, the courts will be very reluctant to award any type of workers’ compensation benefits for a psychological injury. For instance, in the past, if an employee was held up at gunpoint in a job which is known for this particular type of robbery (such as a liquor store which is frequently robbed), that incident may not be considered abnormal. However, a recent decision, Payes v. W.C.A.B (Commonwealth of PA State Police) seems to be softening that standard to some extent. In Payes, a state trooper’s claim for workers’ compensation benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder was first denied by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. The trooper had struck and killed a woman who purposely ran in front of his patrol car while he was traveling to his barracks to begin a shift. The Commonwealth Court denied benefits stating that fatal car accidents and responding to such actions were a “normal” part of a police officer’s job and not an abnormal working condition. The Supreme Court disagreed noting that “normal” working conditions for those in law enforcement include accidents, bodily injuries and death, but in this particular instance, “a mentally disturbed individual running in front of a trooper’s vehicle, for no apparent reason… [is] extraordinary and unusual,” and constituted an abnormal working condition. The state trooper was granted workers’ compensation benefits.
In a very recent decision, a manager of a Bucks County liquor store, who had worked for the Pennsylvania liquor control Board for approximately 30 years, was robbed at gunpoint while inside the store. During the robbery, the employee had a gun pointed at him and placed it against the back of his head. The employee was also verbally threatened and bound with duct tape. As a result of this encounter, the employee developed post-traumatic stress disorder and was unable to return to his job. The employee filed for a workers’ compensation benefit under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act. Workers compensation disability benefits were initially awarded to the employee, however, the Commonwealth Court stopped the benefits on appeal. The Commonwealth Court noted that the employee had attended training and was provided written materials addressing what to do in the event of a robbery. Thus, the Commonwealth Court concluded that the employee should have known and been prepared that a robbery was a “normal” working condition of his job.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated the findings of the Commonwealth Court and ordered the employee’s workers’ compensation benefits reinstated. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court remanded the matter back to the Commonwealth Court for further findings in light of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Payes. The Commonwealth Court issued a new decision in December 2014, and found that the robbery which the employee encountered was not a “normal” working condition of his job and thus was a compensable work injury.
What does this all mean to the current state of workers’ compensation law? It appears that the Pennsylvania workers’ comp courts have softened somewhat when it comes to mental injuries stemming from a mental stimulus at work. The heightened standard which, at one time, seemed to be nearly impenetrable, is now not quite as rigid. Previous cases which had held that harassment in the workplace in a coal mine was not an abnormal working condition may very well have a different result at this point.
The general rule that work-related stress based upon commonplace problems in the employment atmosphere are not compensable, has not changed. The simple fact is that if you are an employee in Pennsylvania and your boss is repeatedly mean to you or, outrageously hard on you, your claim for post-traumatic stress disorder or another other mental diagnosis such as anxiety or depression will likely still be denied. However, it appears that the courts are somewhat more likely to accept an abnormal working condition more readily at this point, based on the finding in Payes.
Daniel E. McCabe, Esq., is an associate in the law firm of Wolf, Baldwin & Associates, P.C.. He and managing attorney Levi S. Wolf, Esq. are two of less than 200 lawyers across the state who have been certified as specialists in the practice of workers’ compensation law by the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Section on Workers’ Compensation Law as authorized by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. His practice, located in the firm’s West Chester office, concentrates on the representation of injured workers and medical providers. He can be reached by phone at 610-436-8300, or by e-mail at [email protected].