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Does psychological pain caused by workplace injury qualify for workers’ comp?

An employee was injured in a work-related car crash. He suffered substantial physical injuries and was awarded workers’ comp. Should he also receive comp for psychological injuries due to the life-changing crash? 

Joseph Gerdon worked for Con Paulos Inc. in Idaho. On June 13, 2008, he was seriously injured in a car crash. He was a passenger in a vehicle being driven by a co-worker who drove off the road.

The Idaho Industrial Commission determined Gerdon suffered a left ankle fracture, complex regional pain syndrome, a disk herniation, bilateral osteoarthritis and temporary thoracic spine pain. He was awarded comp benefits by the Commission for his physical injuries.

Some time later, Gerdon applied for comp benefits for psychological injury, specifically anxiety and depression. His doctor said Gerdon’s “whole life has been completely turned upside down, and it’s all limited by pain.”

After hearing testimony from Gerdon’s doctor and another physician who performed psychological testing, the Commission found his work injury wasn’t the predominant cause of psychological injury as required by Idaho law, so he wouldn’t be awarded additional workers’ comp benefits.

Gerdon appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court.

Prone to depression?

The Commission had given greater weight to the clinical psychologist who examined Gerdon on multiple occasions than to reports from Gerdon’s pain management doctor.

Gerdon’s doctor had testified regarding the patient’s mental state that “The cause is ultimately his chronic pain and his work-related injury.”

But the psychologist saw things differently. There was no doubt Gerdon suffered from depression and anxiety. However, the psychologist said, before his injury, Gerdon was “a hostile individual with patterns of distrust and cynicism … he had anger issues … [he] was prone to depression.”

The psychologist opined that Gerdon would have required psychological treatment along the way even if he hadn’t suffered the work injuries. Gerdon has significant psychological stressors in his life including his father abandoning him, his brother committing suicide and his wife being chronically ill. The pain from his injury contributed 50% of his depression, according to the psychologist. Therefore, “the industrial injury … is not the predominant factor, above all others combined, causing his current depression,” the psychologist said.

On appeal, Gerdon’s attorney noted that his mother, wife and friends all testified he was an optimistic, fun-loving person with no history of anger before the car crash, but he became withdrawn, hostile, self-pitying and unlikable afterward.

The Commission found this testimony to be “undisputed and persuasive.” Nevertheless, it still relied on the psychologist’s opinion in its decision to deny comp benefits for psychological injury.

A 3-2 majority from the Idaho Supreme Court upheld the Commission’s finding. It noted Gerdon’s “preexisting factors prevented him from being able to be successful” with treatment for depression. But it refused to reverse the order by reweighing the evidence, including testimony from Gerdon’s family.

Two justices dissented. They opined that the Industrial Commission made two errors in the case:

  1. It mistakenly concluded that there was a 51% proof requirement to meet the predominant cause standard under Idaho law, and
  2. It improperly disregarded the positive, uncontradicted testimony of Gerdon’s family and friends.

During arguments before the court, attorneys for the company acknowledged that the psychologist didn’t have the benefit of the testimony of Gerdon’s family and friends when he made his 50-50 determination and that it would have been helpful if the psychologist had the knowledge before he submitted his opinion.

The dissenting judges noted that the court previously discounted medical opinions by experts who didn’t have knowledge of a worker compensation claimant’s pre-injury history.

What do you think about the court’s opinion and dissenting opinion in this case? Let us know in the comments.

(Joseph Gerdon v. Con Paulos Inc., Supreme Court of Idaho, Docket No. 43234-2015, 5/27/16)

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