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Compensability

States Split Over Mental Injury Claims

The difficulty in establishing objective medical opinion is an obstacle to handling workplace mental injury claims with any consistency.
By: | February 7, 2018 • 4 min read

The 1,800 miles separating Montana and Pennsylvania pale in comparison to the vastness separating their workers’ compensation laws on workplace mental injuries.

Recent court rulings, one from each jurisdiction, provide a reminder of how workers’ comp laws extensively differ from state to state and how those differences can complicate or ease a claim payer’s defense against claims alleging mental injuries.

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Both cases allege post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among other psychological harms.

The Pennsylvania case of Vasser-Watts v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board involved two 1996 bomb threats and a customer service operator ordered to stay and answer calls while others evacuated a building.

In 1997 a workers’ comp judge ruled abnormal working conditions caused major depressive disorder and panic disorder along with PTSD. Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board affirmed medical benefits for the three injuries.

But nearly 14 years later, when the employer in the case wanted to terminate those benefits, a years-long appeals battle ensued over whether the injured worker continued to suffer from the original conditions.

In addition to back-and-forth rulings between a workers’ comp judge and the appeal board, the case included dueling doctor opinions provided by a psychiatrist representing both sides.

The claims payer never argued that so-called “mental-mental” benefits are not compensable — because in Pennsylvania they clearly are. Instead, the employer argued that the claimant was no longer entitled, because she had recovered from those injuries.

Mental-mental refers to injuries having a mental stimulus and mental consequences. Mental stimulus can include stress, fear and anxiety.

On Jan. 24, 2018, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, an appeals-level body, affirmed the Board’s termination of medical benefits for PTSD and major depressive disorder. But it also reversed the Board’s termination of medical benefits for panic disorder.

“It’s about having the right evidence, having the right investigation and learning what is the mental history of the employee and having a qualified expert make a proper determination.” — Michael Stack, CEO, Amaxx Risk Solutions

The Montana case of TG v. Montana Schools Group Insurance Authority provides a contrasting example of how matters play out when state statutes prohibit workers’ comp benefits for mental-mental claims.

That situation involved a school aide hit, pinched and kicked by a special-needs high-school student who attacked her on two separate days. Three coworkers pulled her away from the second attack when the claimant couldn’t get the student off of her.

Michael Stack, CEO, Amaxx Risk Solutions

The attacks caused PTSD and aggravated the aide’s pre-existing anxiety, depression and “pseudoseizures,” court records show.

The claimant argued she suffered compensable physical injuries and physical-mental injuries.

But on Jan. 25.2018, a Montana workers’ compensation judge granted summary judgement to the Montana School Group Insurance Authority, which argued that the claimant’s injuries did not arise from physical stimulus.

The judge agreed the claimant did not suffer compensable physical injuries nor compensable psychological injuries. He ruled that her anxiety, depression and PTSD are mental-mental conditions while her pseudoseizures are a mental-physical condition. Neither type of claim is compensable under Montana law.

“The legislature recognizes that [emotional distress or mental-mental] claims are difficult to objectively verify and that the claims have a potential to place an economic burden on the workers’ compensation and occupational disease system,” the ruling states. “The legislature also recognizes that there are other states that do not provide compensation for various categories of stress claims … ”

Unlike the case of a physical injury that easily lends itself to objective medical findings, determining a level of anxiety or depression and whether pre-existing conditions or the workplace drive those conditions can be difficult, said Leslae Dalpiaz, a Montana workers’ comp attorney.

But fact patterns for some cases clearly show that mental stresses do harm workers and providing benefits is appropriate, said Dalpiaz, who represents injured employees. That is true for the case of TG v. Montana Schools Group Insurance Authority, she added.

“When you read the facts of this case it should be at least considered, and at the very least, a discussion about causation should occur,” Dalpiaz said.

Common sense tells us that certain events, like workplace shootings, can have enough impact to cause workers to suffer significant mental injuries that should be compensable, said Michael Stack, CEO, Amaxx Risk Solutions, which provides training in workers’ comp best practices.

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Although it is difficult for employers and other claims payers to establish a “clean line” determining what qualifies as a compensable mental injury, there are cases that deserve compensability, Stack agreed.

Eliminating compensation for all mental stimulus claims is irresponsible, Stack said. However, such claims will require digging deep to learn the facts for an appropriate decision on whether an ailment is work related, he added.

“It’s about having the right evidence, having the right investigation and learning what is the mental history of the employee and having a qualified expert make a proper determination,” he said.

But as the Montana ruling shows, some state legislatures decided efforts to reach determinations on individual mental claims places too great a burden on claims payers. &

Roberto Ceniceros is senior editor at Risk & Insurance® and chair of the National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. He can be reached at [email protected] Read more of his columns and features.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Cyber Resilience

No, Seriously. You Need a Comprehensive Cyber Incident Response Plan Before It’s Too Late.

Awareness of cyber risk is increasing, but some companies may be neglecting to prepare adequate response plans that could save them millions. 
By: | June 1, 2018 • 7 min read

To minimize the financial and reputational damage from a cyber attack, it is absolutely critical that businesses have a cyber incident response plan.

“Sadly, not all yet do,” said David Legassick, head of life sciences, tech and cyber, CNA Hardy.

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In the event of a breach, a company must be able to quickly identify and contain the problem, assess the level of impact, communicate internally and externally, recover where possible any lost data or functionality needed to resume business operations and act quickly to manage potential reputational risk.

This can only be achieved with help from the right external experts and the design and practice of a well-honed internal response.

The first step a company must take, said Legassick, is to understand its cyber exposures through asset identification, classification, risk assessment and protection measures, both technological and human.

According to Raf Sanchez, international breach response manager, Beazley, cyber-response plans should be flexible and applicable to a wide range of incidents, “not just a list of consecutive steps.”

They also should bring together key stakeholders and specify end goals.

Jason J. Hogg, CEO, Aon Cyber Solutions

With bad actors becoming increasingly sophisticated and often acting in groups, attack vectors can hit companies from multiple angles simultaneously, meaning a holistic approach is essential, agreed Jason J. Hogg, CEO, Aon Cyber Solutions.

“Collaboration is key — you have to take silos down and work in a cross-functional manner.”

This means assembling a response team including individuals from IT, legal, operations, risk management, HR, finance and the board — each of whom must be well drilled in their responsibilities in the event of a breach.

“You can’t pick your players on the day of the game,” said Hogg. “Response times are critical, so speed and timing are of the essence. You should also have a very clear communication plan to keep the CEO and board of directors informed of recommended courses of action and timing expectations.”

People on the incident response team must have sufficient technical skills and access to critical third parties to be able to make decisions and move to contain incidents fast. Knowledge of the company’s data and network topology is also key, said Legassick.

“Perhaps most important of all,” he added, “is to capture in detail how, when, where and why an incident occurred so there is a feedback loop that ensures each threat makes the cyber defense stronger.”

Cyber insurance can play a key role by providing a range of experts such as forensic analysts to help manage a cyber breach quickly and effectively (as well as PR and legal help). However, the learning process should begin before a breach occurs.

Practice Makes Perfect

“Any incident response plan is only as strong as the practice that goes into it,” explained Mike Peters, vice president, IT, RIMS — who also conducts stress testing through his firm Sentinel Cyber Defense Advisors.

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Unless companies have an ethical hacker or certified information security officer on board who can conduct sophisticated simulated attacks, Peters recommended they hire third-party experts to test their networks for weaknesses, remediate these issues and retest again for vulnerabilities that haven’t been patched or have newly appeared.

“You need to plan for every type of threat that’s out there,” he added.

Hogg agreed that bringing third parties in to conduct tests brings “fresh thinking, best practice and cross-pollination of learnings from testing plans across a multitude of industries and enterprises.”

“Collaboration is key — you have to take silos down and work in a cross-functional manner.” — Jason J. Hogg, CEO, Aon Cyber Solutions

Legassick added that companies should test their plans at least annually, updating procedures whenever there is a significant change in business activity, technology or location.

“As companies expand, cyber security is not always front of mind, but new operations and territories all expose a company to new risks.”

For smaller companies that might not have the resources or the expertise to develop an internal cyber response plan from whole cloth, some carriers offer their own cyber risk resources online.

Evan Fenaroli, an underwriting product manager with the Philadelphia Insurance Companies (PHLY), said his company hosts an eRiskHub, which gives PHLY clients a place to start looking for cyber event response answers.

That includes access to a pool of attorneys who can guide company executives in creating a plan.

“It’s something at the highest level that needs to be a priority,” Fenaroli said. For those just getting started, Fenaroli provided a checklist for consideration:

  • Purchase cyber insurance, read the policy and understand its notice requirements.
  • Work with an attorney to develop a cyber event response plan that you can customize to your business.
  • Identify stakeholders within the company who will own the plan and its execution.
  • Find outside forensics experts that the company can call in an emergency.
  • Identify a public relations expert who can be called in the case of an event that could be leaked to the press or otherwise become newsworthy.

“When all of these things fall into place, the outcome is far better in that there isn’t a panic,” said Fenaroli, who, like others, recommends the plan be tested at least annually.

Cyber’s Physical Threat

With the digital and physical worlds converging due to the rise of the Internet of Things, Hogg reminded companies: “You can’t just test in the virtual world — testing physical end-point security is critical too.”

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How that testing is communicated to underwriters should also be a key focus, said Rich DePiero, head of cyber, North America, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions.

Don’t just report on what went well; it’s far more believable for an underwriter to hear what didn’t go well, he said.

“If I hear a client say it is perfect and then I look at some of the results of the responses to breaches last year, there is a disconnect. Help us understand what you learned and what you worked out. You want things to fail during these incident response tests, because that is how we learn,” he explained.

“Bringing in these outside firms, detailing what they learned and defining roles and responsibilities in the event of an incident is really the best practice, and we are seeing more and more companies do that.”

Support from the Board

Good cyber protection is built around a combination of process, technology, learning and people. While not every cyber incident needs to be reported to the boardroom, senior management has a key role in creating a culture of planning and risk awareness.

David Legassick, head of life sciences, tech and cyber, CNA Hardy

“Cyber is a boardroom risk. If it is not taken seriously at boardroom level, you are more than likely to suffer a network breach,” Legassick said.

However, getting board buy-in or buy-in from the C-suite is not always easy.

“C-suite executives often put off testing crisis plans as they get in the way of the day job. The irony here is obvious given how disruptive an incident can be,” said Sanchez.

“The C-suite must demonstrate its support for incident response planning and that it expects staff at all levels of the organization to play their part in recovering from serious incidents.”

“What these people need from the board is support,” said Jill Salmon, New York-based vice president, head of cyber/tech/MPL, Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance.

“I don’t know that the information security folks are looking for direction from the board as much as they are looking for support from a resources standpoint and a visibility standpoint.

“They’ve got to be aware of what they need and they need to have the money to be able to build it up to that level,” she said.

Without that support, according to Legassick, failure to empower and encourage the IT team to manage cyber threats holistically through integration with the rest of the organization, particularly risk managers, becomes a common mistake.

He also warned that “blame culture” can prevent staff from escalating problems to management in a timely manner.

Collaboration and Communication

Given that cyber incident response truly is a team effort, it is therefore essential that a culture of collaboration, preparation and practice is embedded from the top down.

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One of the biggest tripping points for companies — and an area that has done the most damage from a reputational perspective — is in how quickly and effectively the company communicates to the public in the aftermath of a cyber event.

Salmon said of all the cyber incident response plans she has seen, the companies that have impressed her most are those that have written mock press releases and rehearsed how they are going to respond to the media in the aftermath of an event.

“We have seen so many companies trip up in that regard,” she said. “There have been examples of companies taking too long and then not explaining why it took them so long. It’s like any other crisis — the way that you are communicating it to the public is really important.” &

Antony Ireland is a London-based financial journalist. He can be reached at [email protected] Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]