POLICE OFFICER PTSD CLAIMS; AN OMINOUS TREND
By Attorney Dennis Kurth
Snow, Carpio & Weekley
In the last few years, in reaction to some very high profile incidents around the country, there has been recognition of the tremendous stress police officers are under as a regular part of their daily duties. The law enforcement business is fertile loam for workers’ compensation claims especially claims for physical injuries. Any long-term police officer without a record of several industrial injuries and surgeries is an outlier.
At the same time as there is greater appreciation for the physical and mental stresses of police work there is also, ironically, a clear trend in workers’ compensation law, at least in Arizona, to deprive police officers of coverage for mental injuries, like PTSD, caused by extreme job stress. Mental injury claims by police officers, particularly PTSD, are becoming more prevalent as well as problematic. There is a lot more official (municipalities) resistance to these claims in Arizona.
Because what any civilian would consider extraordinary stress seems simply to be a daily feature of the life of a police officer, it has become very difficult to win a PTSD claim for a police officer before the Industrial Commission of Arizona.
The Arizona workers’ compensation law was changed significantly in 1980 to increase the burden of proof for all mental stress claims. The law went from requiring proof of any work contribution to a double hurdle of proof of unusual, unexpected or extraordinary stress that is a “substantial contributing cause” of the mental condition. (A.R.S. §23-1043.01(B)). The legislature specifically wanted to discourage such claims, at least in the general working population, by making it more difficult to win them. There was no distinction in the statute for police officers.
Case law since then has held that the test of what is unusual, unexpected or extraordinary stress is an objective one which compares the claimant’s stress to that of fellow officers rather than to the general public. As one might expect, if all police officers are subject to tremendous stress on a daily basis, it will be near impossible to successfully file a mental stress claim.
A recent Arizona case, now in the Court of Appeals, illustrates this dilemma. The officer held several different assignments over a twenty year career with the City of Phoenix. He filed a workers’ compensation claim for PTSD which he attributed to a fifteen-item list of extremely traumatic events including suicides, homicides, child drownings, domestic violence and horrific auto accidents over most of those years. The final event triggered a flashback that reduced him to sitting in his patrol car and crying. Finally he sought treatment and was diagnosed with PTSD.
Although the officer had some personal issues related to a contentious divorce and a minor disciplinary matter, both his and the city’s psychiatrists testified that he suffered from PTSD and that the cumulative job stresses on the officer’s list were a substantial contributing cause of his condition.
Both the claimant and the City were represented by experienced workers’ compensation specialists who duked it out, toe to toe, before a very experienced, well-respected ALJ at the Industrial Commission. The officer was specifically found credible by the ALJ but lost the case because, according to the ALJ, he did not prove that his stress was unusual, unexpected or extraordinary compared to other police officers.
What turned the case for the City was the testimony of two high-level, long-tenured officers who said that all police officers are first responders who are exposed to extreme stresses daily in their jobs. They considered the claimant/officer’s stress to be typical for first responders rather than extraordinary or unusual. Each also claimed to have personally experienced several shooting deaths, dying declarations and one had been shot himself. The City attorney also filed documentary evidence consisting of statistics on police staffing levels, listings of drowning calls, summaries of officers who died in the line of duty and other events tending to support its position that extraordinary stress is simply a part of police work.
The ALJ’s award will now face scrutiny by the Court of Appeals but it is not real likely, in this writer’s opinion, that the Court will overturn the ALJ’s award as the objective test of unusual and extraordinary stress has been upheld in other employment contexts as well. It is more likely to draw the Court’s admonishment that the statute be changed to accommodate these serious and meritorious claims.
In the meantime, it is hard to accept that under a remedial statute intended to protect injured workers, those doing the most dangerous of all jobs cannot receive workers’ compensation benefits because they all face extreme danger daily. Perhaps eventually this case might spark the legislature to change the burden of proof for police officers in mental stress cases. Certainly this ominous ruling should not represent how we want our workers’ compensation law to treat our police officers.
For more information on Workers’ Compensation or Social Security Disability, please contact Snow, Carpio & Weekley toll-free at 855-325-4781 or visit our website at www.workinjuryaz.com. We serve the entire State of Arizona and have offices located in Phoenix, Tucson, Yuma and Lake Havasu City.