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Employer Law Report

Mental Block: Ohio Supreme Court Affirms Denial Of Workers’ Compensation Benefits For PTSD Not Caused By Physical Injury To Claimant

Posted in Workers' Compensation

In August 2009, Shaun Armstrong sustained minor physical injuries in a motor vehicle accident while in the scope of his employment. The other driver, who plowed into the back of Armstrong’s truck, was killed.

Armstrong’s workers’ compensation claim was allowed for neck and back injuries. He also sought an allowance for PTSD, which the Industrial Commission also allowed. Armstrong’s employer appealed the PTSD allowance to the common pleas court on the grounds that the PTSD was not caused by his physical injuries.

The parties stipulated that Armstrong had PTSD and conducted a bench trial to determine whether he was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for the condition. Armstrong’s psychiatric expert witness testified that his physical injuries contributed to and were causal factors in his development of PTSD. The employer’s expert, however, testified that Armstrong’s physical injuries did not cause his PTSD, which instead was caused by witnessing the accident and “the mental observation of the severity of the injury, the fatality, [and] the fact that it could have been life-threatening to him at some point.” The employer’s expert also believed that Armstrong would have developed PTSD even without his physical injuries.

The trial court held that Armstrong’s PTSD was not compensable because it did not arise from his physical injuries. The Second District Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the applicable statutory definition of “injury” includes psychiatric conditions only when they arise from a compensable physical injury. The court of appeals further determined that competent, credible evidence supported the trial court’s factual finding that Armstrong’s PTSD did not arise from his physical injuries.

On appeal, the Supreme Court in Armstrong v. John R. Jurgensen Co. was asked to address whether Ohio Revised Section 4123.01(C)(1) limits workers’ compensation coverage for psychiatric conditions to those conditions caused by the claimant’s compensable physical injury. That statute provides that psychiatric conditions are excluded from the general definition of “injury,” “except where the claimant’s psychiatric conditions have arisen from an injury or occupational disease sustained by that claimant.”

 

Armstrong’s employer argued that R.C. 4123.01(C)(1) requires a direct and proximate causal relationship between the physical injury and the mental condition, but Armstrong maintained that "arisen from" is a broader concept than "caused by" and that his PTSD was compensable because it arose contemporaneously with the incident giving rise to the workers’ compensation claim, regardless of whether an actual causal relationship between the physical and mental conditions existed.

The Court rejected Armstrong’s statutory construction, noting that "the plain language of R.C. 4123.01(C) and (C)(1) requires that to constitute a compensable injury for purposes of workers’ compensation, a psychiatric condition must be causally related to the claimant’s compensable physical injury. Accordingly, the statute must be applied as written." The court suggested that any concerns regarding the narrowness of this statutory interpretation needed to be raised with the General Assembly.

Takeaways:  Because it limits the compensability of psychiatric conditions, which are notoriously difficult to defend against, the Armstrong decision of course is a very favorable decision for employers. Setting aside the reasonable debate as to whether an injured worker like Armstrong should be permitted to recover workers’ compensation benefits for their psychological injuries, the Supreme Court definitely got this one right as a matter of statutory construction. Indeed, the legislature has made it very clear as a matter of public policy that purely psychiatric conditions should not be compensable in Ohio in the absence of some physical injury.