Legal Analysis

Exercise Caution With Mental Injury Claims

Employers must recognize that purely psychological injuries can be compensable under certain circumstances.
By: | September 19, 2014

The Court of Appeals of Virginia recently upheld the awarding of workers’ compensation benefits for a United Parcel Service Inc. delivery driver who claimed post-traumatic stress disorder after happening on a gruesome homicide at the home of a regular customer.

Takeaway

When a physical injury occurs, employers usually have a panel of medical doctors ready to provide to the claimant, so that the employer can direct the injured worker to a reliable, hopefully conservative, physician who can treat the employee’s injuries. Typically, employers do not have panels of psychiatrists or mental health care professionals ready to provide to an employee who has suffered a purely psychological injury. Employers must recognize, however, that purely psychological injuries can be compensable, and that they should have panels of mental health care professionals ready to provide to an employee if such an injury is claimed. Immediate treatment could make the difference between a quick return to work and an expensive period of disability.

The Case

In United Parcel Service, Inc., et al v. Prince, Record No. 0006-14-2, Court of Appeals of Virginia (Sept. 9, 2014), the employer was faced with a purely psychological injury. Prince was a delivery driver for UPS.

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Ms. Fassett was one of his regular customers. Prince had made deliveries to Ms. Fassett two to three times a week for approximately ten years and had a good relationship with her.  On January 7, 2013, Prince arrived at Ms. Fassett’s home for one of his regular deliveries. What he found when he arrived was a gruesome scene. He found Ms. Fassett lying in the doorway of her home. She had been shot several times. What was left of her face was covered with blood and shrapnel. Prince alleged that he had been terrified, as he did not know if the perpetrator was still on the premises.  Prince was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Court Findings

The Court of Appeals of Virginia affirmed the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission’s ruling that the claimant’s purely psychological injury was compensable. The Court recognized that the events confronting Prince constituted an obvious sudden shock or fright sufficient to constitute an injury by accident. As a result, Prince was awarded medical and wage indemnity benefits.

Psychological injuries are often the result of circumstances completely outside of the control of the employer. Employers, however, must be ready to respond to such claims when they arise. A proper panel of mental health care providers places an employer in a position to immediately respond to such a situation.

John T. Cornett Jr. is an attorney specializing in workers’ compensation defense at Lynch & Cornett P.C. in Richmond, Va. He can be reached at [email protected]

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