Massachusetts workers’ compensation recognizes that mental health or psychiatric injuries can arise as a result of a workplace and should be compensable. For example, a teacher in a school shooting may experience PTSD. A security guard in a jail subject to an inmate’s attack may develop depression or severe anxiety. However, a worker claiming a psychiatric injury has a greater burden of proof to meet than a worker with a physical injury.
Where a purely emotional injury is claimed, the claimant must show that work events are the predominant contributing cause of his disability. In contrast, a worker claiming compensation for a physical disability must show the work events are a contributing, but not necessarily predominant, cause of the disability. Additionally, if stress is claimed, the worker must show that the work-related events that caused the stress were not “bona fide personnel actions” like transfers, terminations, or demotions.
In a recent case, a Massachusetts Appeals Court considered a worker’s claim for benefits based on a psychological or emotional injury arising from the stress she experienced in a workplace during a 26-year period. She believed the stress was based on several events, including an increased workload, change in supervisors, and an incident in which a client threatened to strangle her.
Her claim was denied in 1989, but the administrative judge’s decision was vacated and the board again considered the matter. Additional evidence was submitted. The judge reversed his decision and awarded the worker temporary benefits. The employer, however, appealed. Four years later, the case was again reversed and sent back to the judge.
Several hearings later, after more medical evidence was submitted, an administrative judge denied the worker’s claim, finding that she was totally disabled, but her disability was not related to work. Rather, her disability arose from a genetic predisposition for schizophrenia. The worker again appealed. The decision was affirmed, so she appealed to the Massachusetts Appeals Court.
The Appeals Court explained that there was no disagreement that the employee was totally disabled. The employee argued that the judge’s ruling that her emotional injuries were not the result of work-related incidents was arbitrary. The Appeals Court disagreed.
It noted that the board’s decision cannot be reversed in this type of case unless the evidence does not support it or it made a legal error. How credible a witness is, for example, is within the administrative judge discretion. The appellate court explained that the judge had adopted several doctor’s opinions. The doctors testified that there was not much of a causal connection between the workers’ injuries and actions in the workplace. The worker’s own treating physician testified he couldn’t state with certainty that the injuries were caused by work rather than other external factors.
The worker argued that the administrative judge should not have required her to prove her disability didn’t arise mainly from a bona fide personnel action. The appellate court explained this error did not have consequence.
If you suffer an emotional or psychiatric injury as a result of events at work, the help of an experienced workers’ compensation attorney can make a big difference to your case. Contact Boston workers’ compensation attorney Michael O. Smith at 617-263-0060 or via our website for a consultation.