Case Analysis

Court Approves Comp for Post-Robbery PTSD

A recent court ruling reverses a prior decision, which found that the potential for armed robbery in the workplace was a normal working condition.
By: | January 5, 2015

An employer must provide worker’s compensation benefits for a liquor store manager suffering from mental trauma after a masked robber held a gun to his head and strapped him to a chair.

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court weighed the employer’s workplace-violence communications among other evidence to reach that conclusion. The appeals-level court also weighed whether the robbery was a normal work occurrence.

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Pennsylvania’s worker’s comp law requires claimants to prove they suffered a psychiatric injury and that such an injury is not the result of normal working conditions.

The Dec. 30, ruling in PA Liquor Control Board V. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board reverses the same court’s prior, 2011 finding that the claimant could have anticipated being robbed at gunpoint, making the event a normal condition of his employment.

The Commonwealth Court’s reversal of its earlier position comes after Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court remanded the case.

The claimant, Gregory Kochanowicz, had worked for the state employer for more than 30 years in 2008 when the robber held a gun to the back of his head. The masked gunman did so while emptying a safe and forcing a female co-worker to empty a cash register and serve as a lookout.

Before fleeing, the robber tied the two co-workers to a chair with duct tape, then prodded Kochanowicz’s head with the gun while asking whether the nervous manager was impatient.

In seeking worker’s comp benefits Kochanowicz testified daily thoughts about the crime cause stress and nightmares. He feared it could happen again if he returned to the job.

A psychologist for the claimant and a doctor hired by the employer and specializing in clinical and forensic psychiatry both testified that Kochanowicz experienced post-traumatic stress disorder.

An employee assistance program coordinator also testified for the employer that he provided the claimant and other workers with training on workplace violence. The claimant also received written communications on the topic, the court decision shows.

A worker’s comp judge ruled, however, that the employer’s acknowledgement that workplace violence occurs on its premises, through such communications, does not make having a gun held to the back of a worker’s head during a robbery a normal working condition.

The state’s Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board affirmed awarding benefits for a disabling work injury.

The Commonwealth Court reversed, however. It found that the employer’s training and other communications about violence, along with a history of robberies occurring at other state-owned liquor stores, showed that the crime the claimant experienced was a normal condition of his employment.

Upon appeal, however, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court vacated the Commonwealth Court finding and remanded the case for reconsideration.

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The Commonwealth Court then looked closer at whether the employer’s training in workplace violence and the occurrence of robberies at other state liquor stores made the robbery in question a normal working condition.

It found that much of the employer’s training was not entirely relevant to whether the robbery the claimant experienced was a part of normal working conditions.

“An examination of the evidence pertaining to Claimant’s training in workplace violence reveals that much of the training was focused on workplace violence, in general, rather than on armed robberies specifically,” the appeals court said.

Additionally, the court noted that the employer’s own training materials referenced armed robberies as infrequent occurrences. On Dec. 30, 2014, the court upheld the Workers’ Comp Appeal Board’s original decision affirming the Workers’ Comp judge’s ruling to provide Kochanowicz benefits.

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.

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]