A truck driver witnessed a fatal crash on the job. Should workers’ comp cover his treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Shaun Armstrong was driving a one-ton dump truck for the John R. Jurgensen Co. While stopped at a yield sign on an access ramp to I-70 in Ohio, a vehicle crashed into the back of his truck. The other vehicle ended up “basically underneath” the dump truck.
Armstrong got out of his truck, fearing that a fuel leak might erupt into flames. He noticed the other driver with his head slumped down and blood coming out of his nose. Armstrong was taken to a local emergency room for treatment. While he was in the ER, he heard that the other driver had died. Armstrong was treated and released.
The truck driver filed a workers’ comp claim for treatment of neck and back strain. Later, he requested additional workers’ comp benefits for PTSD.
The Ohio Industrial Commission officer allowed the claim for PTSD, finding it compensable because it was causally related to his workplace injury. The entire Commission let the hearing officer’s decision stand. The company took its case to a state court of common pleas.
In that trial, both sides agreed Armstrong suffered from PTSD. The only question was whether workers’ comp should cover his expenses for the condition.
Armstrong and Jurgensen both presented testimony from doctors.
Armstrong’s doctor said the truck driver developed PTSD as a result of the crash and that his physical injuries contributed to and were causal factors.
Jurgensen’s doctor agreed that Armstrong suffered from PTSD as a result of the crash, but he added that physical injuries didn’t cause the psychological condition. Instead, the PTSD was caused by witnessing the crash and death of the other motorist. The doctor said, even if Armstrong had received no physical injuries, he still might have suffered from PTSD because of witnessing the death of the other motorist.
The trial court sided with the company. It said Armstrong’s PTSD wasn’t compensable under workers’ comp because it didn’t arise from his physical injuries. A state court of appeals agreed with the decision.
Armstrong appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Link between physical and psychiatric injuries
The supreme court said the case boiled down to this question: Does Ohio law limit workers’ comp coverage to those psychiatric conditions caused by the employee’s physical injury?
The court relied upon the language in Ohio’s workers’ comp law to find the answer. The law says psychiatric conditions are excluded from the general definition of injury “except where the claimant’s psychiatric conditions have arisen from an injury or occupational disease sustained by that claimant.”
The record contained contradictory testimony on whether Armstrong’s injuries were a contributing cause of his PTSD. Armstrong’s doctor said the physical injuries did cause his PTSD. A doctor for the company had the opposite opinion. The trial court, after hearing all the evidence, found the company’s doctor to be more credible.
For that reason, the Ohio Supreme Court allowed the lower court’s decision to stand. Armstrong could not receive additional workers’ comp benefits to treat his PTSD.
Two judges on the state’s highest court disagreed with the majority and wrote dissenting opinions.
One judge wrote:
“This case presents a perfect opportunity to right a wrong in the area of workers’ compensation law … it is wholly irrelevant whether the psychological condition arose from the accident or from the trauma and drama … Either way he was injured in the course and scope of his employment. It is that simple.”
Whether PTSD is covered under workers’ comp has also come up in a different type of case: those involving law enforcement or first responders who are not physically injured at all but witness the horrors of a vicious attack or mass shooting. Some state legislatures are taking up the question of whether their workers’ comp laws should be changed to allow coverage for law enforcement or emergency responders who develop PTSD from conducting part of their jobs.
What do you think about the court’s decision? When should workers’ comp cover PTSD? Let us know in the comments below.
(Armstrong v. Jurgensen Co., Ohio Supreme Court, No. 2012-0244, 6/4/13)