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When is a Psychological Injury Compensable under Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Laws?

Catherine Reeves
When is a Psychological Injury Compensable under Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Laws?

One of the elements of a compensable claim under Pennsylvania workers’ compensation laws is that there be an injury. An injury is commonly thought of as a physical injury such as cuts, burns, or broken bones, but in some situations, a claimant may argue that they suffered from a psychological injury. Examples of psychological injuries include depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder requiring treatment with a psychiatrist and therapist. Pennsylvania recognizes three types of psychological injuries: 1) physical/mental, 2) mental/mental, 3) and mental/physical.

The first category, physical/mental, applies when there is a physical stimulus that results in a psychological injury. It is not necessary to show a physical disability, meaning that a physical injury causes the claimant to miss work. However, if there is a physical injury that requires medical treatment, this is enough to invoke the physical/mental standard. An example of a physical/mental claim is a claimant who witnesses their coworker suffer from limb amputation. While trying to assist the coworker, the claimant got bodily fluids on themselves and later required testing for blood-borne illnesses. That claimant later developed post-traumatic stress disorder and was unable to leave their house due to the severity of their symptoms. Because this claimant required medical treatment and testing, this claim would be considered physical/mental.

The second category, mental/mental, applies when a claimant suffers a psychological injury without a physical stimulus. In this situation, the claimant has a greater burden of proof and must show that the psychological injury was caused by abnormal working conditions. There is no bright-line rule for what an abnormal working condition is, and this determination is decided by a workers’ compensation judge. Some examples of situations that are not considered abnormal working conditions are added responsibilities to a job, perceived abuse by supervisors, and termination of employment. An example of what was determined to be an abnormal working condition was a claimant who suffered a psychological injury when he killed a pedestrian who stepped in front of his street sweeper truck.

The last category, mental/physical, applies when psychological stress results in a purely physical injury. These physical injuries can include angina, diarrhea, or abdominal pains. If the claim is purely physical, no showing of an abnormal working condition is required. An example of this type of claim was in Panyko v. WCAB (US Airways), 888 A.2d 724 (2005). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that there was a mental/physical injury when a claimant suffered a stress-related heart attack after a confrontation with his supervisor. However, as pointed out in the dissent of this case, there have been other cases where similar claims had been denied.

Obviously, each individual will react differently to work conditions and adverse situations placed before them. If you believe that you have suffered a psychological injury due to working, we recommend that you contact an attorney for a consultation.

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