Police officer’s mental injury might have been compensable under amended Minnesota workers’ compensation law

By Kathy Bray, Esq.

In Minnesota, until a change to the workers’ compensation law takes effect Oct. 1, employees must suffer a contemporaneous or consequential physical injury in order to obtain compensation for a mental condition or injury. Historically, a mental injury independent of physical injury from the same event, the so-called “mental-mental” injury, has not been compensable in Minnesota.  A recent Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals decision  explains the longstanding criteria for compensability of mental injuries:

Thirty-two years ago, the Minnesota Supreme Court considered the issue of compensability for mental injury in Lockwood v. Independent School District No. 877 . The court classified compensation claims involving mental conditions into three groups: mental trauma resulting in physical injury; physical trauma resulting in mental injury; and mental trauma resulting in mental injury. Concluding that coverage for mental-mental claims was not contemplated by the Legislature, the court held that a mental injury caused by job-related stress without physical trauma is not a compensable claim under the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act.

The Schuette case followed this traditional application of the law, and denied a police officer’s claim for workers’ compensation benefits after he was called to the local high school because a young girl had fallen out of a pickup truck and hit her head. As he was responding to the call, the officer realized he knew the girl and her family. He and another officer tried to resuscitate the girl, and drove her to the hospital. She later died.

Even while at the hospital, the officer began feeling ill and continued to experience a variety of symptoms for several years following the event, including difficulty sleeping, nightmares, anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks, and headaches. Ultimately, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A dispute developed over whether PTSD involved a correlating physical injury which created a compensable work injury. The employee’s experts opined that imaging studies can show structural damage to the brain related to the PTSD symptoms, and that the employee’s disability from work was due to this physical injury to his brain. The employer’s expert disagreed, noting that findings on the imaging studies could not be correlated to PTSD, and that no evidence was present to support the conclusion the employee had sustained a physical injury to his brain as part of the work-related incident.

The compensation judge at the hearing concluded that the employee had suffered a mental disability without physical injury that was not compensable under the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act. On appeal, the judge’s decision was affirmed. The appellate court noted that Minnesota was in the minority of jurisdictions which declined to recognize a purely mental disability as a compensable work injury.

Change coming soon to Minnesota workers’ comp law

Beginning Oct. 1, the outcome of claims like the one presented in Schuette may change. The Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act was changed for injuries on or after that date, with a new definition of “occupational disease” under Minn. Stat. Sec. 176.011, subd. 15 and a new definition of “personal injury” under subd. 16, expanding both to include mental impairment, defined as follows:

[A] diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder by a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist.

The statute specifically confirmed that the longstanding law recognizing the compensability of physical stimulus resulting in mental injury and mental stimulus resulting in physical injury remains the same.

The diagnosis or condition of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as specifically addressed in the law , by defining the condition as that “described in the most recently published edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by the American Psychiatric Association.”

The definition of compensable “personal injury” under the law was similarly expanded.

The amended statute specifically excludes from compensable occupational diseases those mental impairments resulting from disciplinary action, work evaluation, job transfer, layoff, demotion, promotion, termination, retirement, or similar action taken in good faith by the employer.

Would outcome of Schuette case have been different?

If Schuette’s claim had arisen after Oct. 1, 2013, would the outcome have changed? It is uncertain, because the employer and insurer disputed the scope and extent of the claimed PTSD diagnosis and extent of disablement, regardless of the finding on whether the employee’s alleged PTSD diagnosis had resulted in a physical or structural injury to the brain. Certainly, though, this change in the law opens up new avenues to employees seeking compensation for work-related PTSD injuries that did not result in accompanying physical injury.

You can be certain this is not the last you will hear of the PTSD claim under workers’ compensation law in Minnesota.

(At the time this blog post was published, the Schuette case was on appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court.)

This is not intended to serve as legal advice for individual fact-specific legal cases or as a legal basis for your employment practices.

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