By Lynn Taylor
Illinois has long recognized three types of mental trauma work injuries, physical-mental, mental-physical, and mental-mental. Of the three, the mental-mental cases, in which an employee alleges a mental trauma at work has resulted in mental injuries, have been the most problematic for employees. The First District Appellate Court, in Moran v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, (IWCC) recently has provided some guidance and added clarity for the problematic mental injuries. 2016 IL App (1st) 151366WC.
In Moran, Petitioner, a firefighter/paramedic, and his team responded to a fire. Petitioner directed his team to enter the building. A flashover engulfed his team. Two team members safely exited the burning building. Sadly, a third member of his team was trapped inside. Ultimately, the first responders dragged the third member from the building. Petitioner assisted in rendering first aid to the team member before he was transported to the hospital. Unfortunately, the team member soon died from his injuries.
Petitioner began feeling extreme guilt, as he felt responsible for his team member’s death. He experienced flashbacks and had trouble sleeping. His psychiatrist and psychologist diagnosed him with PTSD resulting from this traumatic event. Petitioner filed an Application for Adjustment of Claim with the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission.
The IWCC arbitrator, the IWCC, and the Cook County Circuit Court held that Petitioner had not suffered a compensable work-related accident. These courts found that since Petitioner had been present when the flashover occurred, he was not entitled to benefits.
The First District Appellate Court disregarded and reversed the lower court decisions. The Court concluded that an employee is not required to show he or she directly witnessed the entirety of a traumatic event in order to prove a compensable accident occurred. In Pathfinder Co. v. Industrial Comm’n, the Illinois Supreme Court held that, “an employee who…suffers a sudden, severe emotional shock traceable to a definite time, place and cause which causes psychological injury or harm has suffered an accident within the meaning of the Act, though no physical trauma or injury was sustained.” 62 Ill. 2d 556, 563 (1976). As such, the focus of the inquiry should be on whether the employee suffered a severe emotional shock. In the instant case, the Court found that, due to the tragic nature of the events and Petitioner’s presence and involvement immediately following the inciting event, the fact that Petitioner was not present in the house at the exact moment in time of the flashover did not preclude Petitioner from suff ering a severe emotional shock.
Moreover, the decision reaffi rms that the standard in proving that a compensable accident occurred as a result of an emotional shock is that of an objective, reasonable person, irrespective of the employee’s line of work. The Court noted that prior decisions attempting to introduce a subjective element into the analysis of whether a claimant suff ered an emotional shock were determined to be contrary to the established law in Pathfinder. As the court noted in Diaz v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, “Nothing in Pathfinder requires that the ‘sudden, severe emotional shock’ which must be proved should be considered within the context of the claimant’s occupation or training.” 2013 IL App (2d) 120294WC, ¶ 33. Rather, emotional shock must be proven on the basis of “an objective, reasonable-person standard, rather than a subjective standard that takes into account the claimant’s occupation and training.” Id.
Here, the emotional shock Petitioner experienced in directing and witnessing the events which claimed the life of a fellow firefighter far exceeded the typical stress an employee would expect to experience on the job. The flashbacks and extreme guilt from which Petitioner suffered after his colleague’s death were in response to an “exceptionally distressing emotional shock.” Petitioner’s treating physician noted that, although firefighters are forced to deal with accidents and death as a part of their employment, the death of a fellow firefighter would be “an event of an extraordinarily different nature.”
So what does the Moran decision mean for the future of mental-mental claims? Despite cries that “the sky is falling” from many employers, the Moran decision does not subject employers to an entirely new expanse of potential “mental-mental” claims. Rather, the decision simply clarified that the proper standard in determining whether a severe emotional shock occurred should not take into account a claimant’s occupation or training, and that there is no requirement that a claimant be present throughout the entirety of a traumatic event in order to show a severe emotional shock occurred.
The specific facts in Moran allowed Petitioner to prove entitlement to benefits when he did not directly witness the inciting event, since Petitioner’s participation in and direction of the event, as well as the immediate aftermath, were so traumatic that the Court concluded a reasonable person would find a severe emotional shock occurred. The Court arrived at its conclusion in Moran by applying the preexisting standard, in that the amount and type of involvement required to rise to the level of experiencing a severe emotional shock would depend on the individual facts of the case, based on an objective, reasonable person standard.
Moreover, Moran does not permit every first responder to simply claim PTSD after any traumatic event. The decision does nothing to lessen the employee’s burden to show that they suffered a severe emotional shock, that they are in fact suffering from PTSD, and that the PTSD was caused by the emotional shock. What Moran does do is provide clarity in affirming that even those employees acting as first responders, who often place their own safety in jeopardy to assist others, are entitled to recover for injuries resulting from severe emotional shocks they experience on the job as well.
This article first appeared in the WBAI Winter 2017 Newsletter.
Lynn Taylor is an associate attorney with Woodruff Johnson & Palermo. She represents individuals in workers’ compensation, personal injury, and Social Security Disability cases all over the state of Illinois.