It was described by an eyewitness as a “gruesome scene.” A worker’s leg became wrapped around a forklift’s axle after she was struck by it. Did the forklift driver get workers’ comp benefits for psychological injuries?
Samuel Paul Jackson worked for Ceres Marine Terminals in Virginia as a longshoreman.
On March 28, 2011, Jackson was operating a forklift when he struck Paula Belamy, a co-worker, causing injuries that resulted in her death.
Jackson didn’t realize at first that he had struck Belamy, but another worker quickly flagged him down. Belamy’s leg was wrapped around the rear axle. Other workers untangled her legs and dragged her from underneath the forklift.
A company superintendent said Belamy was still alive and communicative.
Jackson said Belamy was “pretty mangled – her arm was mangled, you could pretty much see the bone in her arm and her wrist and hand were twisted around backwards.” He watched the rescue efforts of police and the fire department.
The day after, Jackson visited his primary care physician. A week later he saw a social worker who recommended he not return to work for four to six weeks.
A psychologist first saw Jackson three months after the incident and diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A psychiatrist prescribed medication for Jackson. A second psychiatrist confirmed the PTSD diagnosis and said it was related to the work incident.
However, a third psychiatrist concluded Jackson didn’t suffer from PTSD because “he did not experience a threat to himself.”
Jackson filed a workers’ comp claim for medical benefits, lost wages and permanent disability. Ceres contested the claim, saying that Jackson:
- violated a known safety rule
- rejected a panel of physicians, and
- didn’t suffer a compensable injury.
A deputy commissioner found Jackson’s injury wasn’t compensable because he wasn’t placed in imminent physical danger at the time of the incident. The Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission affirmed the ruling. Jackson took his case to a state appeals court.
Physical injury needed to quality for comp?
Before the appeals court, Jackson argued the commission erred by saying he didn’t suffer a compensable psychological injury because he wasn’t placed at risk of harm.
The appeals court noted that the Virginia Supreme Court had addressed the question of compensability of purely psychological injuries.
The state’s high court had said, “In tort actions we have followed the common-law rule that there can be no recovery for mental anguish unaccompanied by physical injury. The rules of common law for tort actions, however, do not apply to cases under the Workmen’s Compensation Act.”
In Virginia workers’ comp cases, a purely psychological injury such as PTSD must be related to a physical injury or to an obvious shock or fright arising in the course of employment.
There’s no doubt seeing the mangled body of the co-worker he struck caused “shock or fright” for Jackson.
For those reasons, the state appeals court reversed the commission’s ruling that had denied comp benefits for Jackson. His case will go back to the commission to determine the exact compensability for his PTSD.
At least 29 states award benefits for purely psychological injuries. Sixteen states require a connection between a worker’s psychological condition and a physical injury before they will award benefits.
Should workers be able to collect comp benefits for PTSD in a case like this one? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
(Samuel Paul Jackson v. Ceres Marine Terminals Inc., Court of Appeals of Virginia, No. 1172-14-1, 3/17/15)