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Employee struck by train, injured at work; did he suffer psychological injuries, too?


An employee suffered serious injuries at work, which were covered under workers’ comp. But one question remained: Did he suffer compensable psychological injuries, too? 

Brett Sullivan suffered a workplace injury in October 2011 when, as an employee of West Central Cooperative in Iowa, the wheel loader he was driving was struck by a train.

Sullivan spent a long time in the hospital and had a number of surgeries. West Central paid Sullivan for lost time, permanent partial disability and medical bills.

However, Sullivan also claimed he had a mental-health condition caused by the crash. The company disputed that claim.

A deputy commissioner of the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commission found Sullivan didn’t have a mental condition as a result of his work injury.

Specifically, the deputy commissioner wrote:

“In this case, the old adage, ‘actions speak louder than words’ applies. For more than two years after the work injury, claimant attended numerous medical appointments. He returned to work and performed his duties, even though he had faced several surgeries, physical therapy sessions, and had to use such assistive devices as wheelchairs and walkers to perform his duties. Throughout that timeframe, Sullivan did not report to any of his medical providers or to his supervisors he was having depression, anxiety or PTSD. Sullivan did not request treatment or drug therapy for any mental health issues. His numerous treating physicians did not observe symptoms consistent with any mental condition.”

Four doctors weighed in on the issue. Two experts said he had a mental health issue, two said he didn’t. One went as far as to say Sullivan was malingering.

The deputy commissioner noted the evidence seemed more in line with the opinions of the doctors who said he didn’t have a mental health issue.

A commissioner, the full Commission and an Iowa district court all adopted the deputy’s opinion.

Recently, the Court of Appeals of Iowa weighed in. It, too, affirmed the original opinion, quoting the doctor who said Sullivan was malingering:

“It seems if we accepted at face value the severity of this patient’s cognitive difficulties, to report these symptoms after such a long period of time is a little peculiar.”

The appeals court found nothing wrong with the previous rulings. Sullivan was denied additional benefits for a mental health injury.

(Brett V. Sullivan v. West Central CooperativeCourt of Appeals of Iowa, No. 18-1811, 8/21/19)

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