Workers' compensation law is a difficult thing to change. However, Connecticut may be close to expanding coverage to include post-traumatic stress.
At least in special circumstances...
...and only for police officers and first responders.
It’s an important start. But one that leaves most workers without protections against emotional trauma.
Fixing a Hole in Worker’s Comp Coverage
Police unions across the U.S. are pushing for officers to be able to collect workers' compensation benefits if they suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, whether it comes from stress or from responding to a deadly shooting rampage. In 2012, Connecticut did pass a bill which providing coverage to firefighters and police officers for “mental or emotional impairment.” However, the law only provided worker’s compensation coverage for police if emotional trauma is from an officer's use of deadly force.
Lawmakers are now considering providing compensation to police officers with PTSD from situations not involving deadly force. Sadly, the move was inspired by the most tragic event in recent Connecticut history - the mass shooting in Newtown. Policeman Thomas Bean has not been able to return to work due to depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts since responding to the shooting, which left 20 first graders and six educators dead.
It is interesting to note that this isn’t the first time state lawmakers have considered expanding workers' compensation coverage following a tragic, high-profile case. Remember Travis, the chimpanzee that mauled a woman in North Stamford in 2009? Stamford police officer Frank Chiafari was the first responder in the incident, and was forced to shoot and kill the crazed chimpanzee.
Despite suffering obvious mental distress after the shooting, Chiafari was denied workers comp for PTSD because it only covered the use of deadly force on humans. Connecticut lawmakers promptly updated the law to provide workers' compensation coverage for mental or emotional impairment when a police officer is forced to use deadly force on an animal. But even then, the bill was drafted so narrowly that it wouldn’t include instances involving rabid animals such as raccoons or when an officer has to shoot a deer that’s been injured in a car crash.
Workers' Comp is Always in Flux
It is possible to win workers' compensation for emotional trauma in most states, but only in special circumstances. Under Connecticut law, work-related emotional distress injuries are not covered unless the trauma is caused by a physical injury.
To understand how this works in practice, consider a series of rulings in Ohio, which has a similar workers' compensation statute. There, courts have found that emotional trauma like PTSD is only covered if the emotional trauma is directly related to a physical injury.
In a 2012 case, Jones v. Catholic Healthcare Partners, worker’s compensation for PTSD was awarded to a hospital employee held hostage by an escaped prisoner. However, the woman was awarded workers' compensation for PTSD only because a doctor testified that the traumatic stress was at least partially tied to a physical injury to her wrist.
A year later, in Armstrong v. John R. Jurgensen Co., the state Supreme Court denied PTSD compensation to a dump truck driver seriously hurt in an accident while on the job. The court found that the even though the driver was seriously hurt in the accident and suffered from PTSD, his mental anguish was tied to the shock of seeing the other driver in the accident die, and not from physical injuries.
Too Little, Too Late?
Connecticut has so far denied Bean workers' compensation for his PTSD symptoms, which are not tied to a physical cause or the use of deadly force. That’s because, as with most of the survivors and first responders to the Newtown attack, Bean was not physically injured in the attack. His injuries were entirely psychological.
Expanding workers' compensation coverage too broadly can put a strain on resources for small communities or businesses. That’s why lawmakers have been willing to expand workers' compensation law, but only slowly and very, very narrowly.
But at Leighton, we know that workers in any line of work can be subjected to emotionally scarring trauma. Making incremental expansion only in response to very specific and very unusual cases means many more people will be denied compensation in the future. PTSD is a real and recognized condition that deserves broader protections.