Distinguishing Burdens Of Proof For Psychological Injury Under The Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act

In New Enterprise Stone & Lime Co. v. WCAB (Kalmanowicz), No. 1492 C.D. 2012, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania recently held that a collision between the Claimant’s truck and a decedent’s automobile was a sufficient physical stimulus causing psychological injury such that the physical-mental analysis should apply rather than a mental-mental analysis. This is a good ruling for injured workers because under the mental-mental analysis, a Claimant must show “abnormal working conditions” which is often very difficult to establish.  In other words, to prove a mental injury under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Law, if you can show a triggering physical stimulus or event, your odds at winning will be increased. Conversely, if you cannot show that a physical stimulus caused the mental disorder, you will be forced to show abnormal working conditions (ie, the mental disorder was more than a subjective reaction to normal working conditions) Claimants attorneys across Pennsylvania know that it is not easy to prove abnormal working conditions based on the case law to date.

The typical physical-mental analysis will apply in a case where a Claimant injures his low back from a work-related injury. Consequently, he develops depression and anxiety from dealing with his chronic pain and being out of work. The physical stimulus or triggering event was the work-related activity- ie, lifting boxes- causing the mental disorder. On the other hand, if a Claimant suffers from stress at work, not because of a physical injury or event, but due to ridicule from a co-worker or supervisor, the mental-mental analysis will apply and the abnormal working conditions element must be met.

In the New Enterprise Stone & Lime case, the injured worker/Claimant was driving on a highway when another vehicle veered right into him.  The driver was on a suicide mission and had his face pressed up against the windshield and looking at Claimant when they collided. The driver died upon impact and Claimant, after the head on collision, veered down an embankment and into some trees. He exited his truck when bystanders were yelling to get out since it may catch on fire. Claimant injured his chest and wrist but his significant injury was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder- due to  nightmares from the accident, fear, etc.

Claimant filed a Claim Petition alleging PTSD from the June 2009 accident. Hearings were held and evidence presented. The Workers’ Compensation Judge awarded benefits finding Claimant proved the physical-mental elements. Employer appealed, asserting that the Court erred by applying the physical-mental analysis rather than the mental-mental.  The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board affirmed the WCJ’s Decision.

The Commonwealth Court also affirmed, finding that the physical stimulus was the collision causing the death of the other driver before Claimant’s eyes and disabling his loaded tractor-trailer causing it to descend an embankment. Claimant’s “intimate involvement in the fatal accident is sufficient to constitute a ‘physical stimulus’ to support a compensation award”, the Court ruled.

Note that there is a third category for psychological injuries under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Law- mental-physical. This applies where a psychological stimulus causes physical injury. An example of this would be if a Claimant was subjected to repeated crude, sexual comments by a co-worker causing ulcers and migraines from the mental stress.

If you want more information about psychological injuries and the standards of proof under the PA Work Comp Law, call or email Claimant’s attorney Michael W. Cardamone at 215-206-9068 or mcardamone@krasno.com for a free analysis of your case.

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