Philip Payes was a seasoned (12 year) Pennsylvania State Trooper who, on the night of November 29, 2006, struck and killed a pedestrian, dressed in black, who suddenly ran in front of his patrol car, along Interstate 81. Payes circled back and parked his cruiser into the traffic lane and rushed to attend to the woman. He gave her mouth to mouth resuscitation, as she bled from the mouth. At the same time he was attempting to revive the victim, the trooper tried to divert oncoming traffic from hitting him and the woman. Other troopers soon arrived at the scene and the victim was pronounced dead. It was later discovered that she suffered from mental illness and had been seen by several drivers walking up and down Interstate 81 just prior to the incident. The trooper was transported from the scene to a hospital for testing and treatment, related to his exposure to the victim’s blood. Thereafter, the trooper returned to work for 4 days, but recurring feelings of anxiousness and stress led him to seek out psychiatric treatment, with a subsequent determination that he was unfit to perform his duties as a state trooper.
The trooper filed a Claim Petition alleging entitlement to benefits for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”). The state employer argued that the employee had not been exposed to “abnormal working conditions,” and even so, the PTSD associated with the incident had fully resolved.
The WC Judge awarded benefits, but the WCAB reversed and the Commonwealth Court affirmed the WCAB. The Supreme Court, however, reversed the Commonwealth Court and reinstated the WCJ’s award of benefits. Although state troopers may expect to encounter violent situations, the particular work-related mental stimulus here was not one normally encountered or expected by state troopers. While troopers often encounter vehicular accidents, bodily injuries, death, murder, mayhem and violent acts in the normal course of their duties, they are not normally exposed to the specific circumstances which occurred in this case – namely, a mentally disturbed individual darting in front of a trooper’s vehicle for no apparent reason, followed by a harrowing attempt at resuscitation with oncoming vehicular traffic.
While the result in this case is certainly understandable, the reasoning of the Court is troubling in that it “opens the door” to future arguments that “abnormal working conditions” may be present, even though the job at issue is inherently dangerous. After all, the subjective nature of mental injury claims gave rise to the requirement of “abnormal working conditions,” to avoid the potential for abuse that might result from a more lax standard. If the “abnormal working condition” standard is now going to be “incident” specific as opposed to “occupation” specific, it would seem that the door is now open to situations involving little more than a claimant’s subjective reaction to normal working conditions.
Since the employer had acknowledged a physical injury via the potential blood-borne pathogen exposure, the Supreme Court could have concluded that the case represented a physical/mental scenario, with no elevated “abnormal working condition” burden of proof.
Nevertheless, in light of the Court’s reasoning, we do expect to see future claims for alleged mental injuries that allegedly meet the Court’s revised “abnormal working condition” standard. Philip Payes v. WCAB (Pennsylvania State Police), No. 50 MAP 2011 (PA Supreme Court, decided October 30, 2013).
We hope you find this issue of KKAL’s Labor & Employment Law Watch helpful and informative. Please understand that the Law Watch is designed to provide information about current developments and required actions and does not constitute legal advice.
If you have questions or concerns about any of these recent cases, or if we can be of assistance on similar cases you may be handling, please do not hesitate to contact Paul Clouser (717-392-4895) or Denise Elliott (717-392-5594), or email us at the following addresses:
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