Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals Affirms Denial of PTSD Claim

Reaffirms Minnesota’s Prohibition on Mental Stress Claims

On April 18, 2013, the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals (WCCA) reaffirmed precedent going back three decades and held that Minnesota does not allow mental stress claims. 

In Schuette v. City of Hutchinson, employee, a police officer, responded to an emergency call involving a twelve-year-old girl who fell out of a truck and struck her head on the pavement.  The employee attempted to resuscitate the girl and realized he knew the girl and her family.  The officer drove the ambulance to the hospital and the girl was airlifted to another hospital, where she was pronounced dead.  While at the hospital, the employee felt sick and experienced “dry heaves.”  He participated in police department debriefing sessions but later experienced a variety of symptoms, including difficulty sleeping, nightmares, anxiety, panic attacks, mood swings, irritability, flashbacks, headaches, hyper-vigilance, and forgetfulness. He did not seek treatment for about three years.

The employee underwent extensive treatment for his symptoms and received a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis from various providers, including doctors, psychiatrists, neuropsychologists, and clinical psychologists.  Based on the evidence presented, Compensation Judge Dan Kelly found the employee developed symptoms of PTSD after the work incident.  The judge expressly accepted the medical opinions of Dr. Paul Arbisi and Dr. Ronald Groat and found PTSD a mental disability which did not result in a physical injury and was therefore not compensable under Minnesota’s workers’ compensation law.  The WCCA, in an opinion written by Chief Judge Milun, found Judge Kelly relied on substantial evidence and well-established reasoning under Lockwood to make his determination and affirmed it.

In Minnesota, compensation claims involving mental conditions fall into three groups: mental trauma resulting in physical injury, physical trauma resulting in mental injury, and mental trauma resulting in mental injury.  Lockwood v. Independent School District No. 877, 312 N.W.2d 924 (Minn. 1981).  Minnesota recognizes claims which fall in the first two categories. In Lockwood, the Minnesota Supreme Court found the legislature did not contemplate the third category of “mental-mental” claims when it enacted the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act; therefore, a mental injury caused by job-related stress without physical trauma is not a compensable claim under Minnesota law.

In dicta, the WCCA panel mentioned 32 states provide compensation in cases of mental stress with no physical injury.  The panel also stated the Lockwood case seems “an increasingly isolated position in workers’ compensation law.”  Minnesota may soon join the majority of states in providing compensation for some mental stress claims. The Minnesota Legislature is considering new legislation that would expand the definition of occupational disease and personal injury to encompass “mental impairment.”  The proposed definition of mental impairment is “a diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder by a licensed physician or psychologist… and means the condition as described in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association.”  The proposed legislation states mental impairment is not considered a disease if it results from “a disciplinary action work evaluation, job transfer, lay off, demotion, promotion, termination, retirement, or similar action taken in good faith by the employer.”

While Schuette affirms Minnesota workers compensation precedent by denying compensation for a claim of mental stress without physical injury, the Legislature may amend the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act to allow compensation for claims of PTSD without physical injury. We are monitoring this and other workers’ compensation legislation and will promptly notify you of any substantial changes in Minnesota workers compensation law.

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