Workers’ Comp Payments for Dispatcher’s Mental Injury Claim Disputed in Court
Oft forgotten when we think of first responders are the people at the other end of the 9-1-1 call who dispatch services to the emergency callers. Not only responsible for gathering information and sending police, ambulances or otherwise to the correct locations, dispatchers are also the first point of contact a scared individual speaks to for help.
Oftentimes, these callers are distraught, requiring a gentle but firm voice on the other end of the line.
Mandy Tripp has worked as a dispatcher since 2002, taking calls, connecting them with the emergency and non-emergency lines, coordinating with police and fire departments and more.
In her estimations, she fields 50 to 200 calls on a given day.
On September 20, 2018, Tripp received an emergency call from a screaming mother. In the two minute and fifteen second call, Tripp learned that the woman’s baby had died due to a wound inflicted by a claw hammer.
She transferred the call to the appropriate escalation, but the woman’s screams continued to haunt her.
In her career, Tripp had only ever had three infant death calls, but this time, it was different. Tripp backed out of a training session with a new employee a week later, unable to sit through her day.
On October 8, 2018, Tripp told the company director of SECC she intended to begin counseling over the distressing call. Her first counseling session took place by October 16.
The counselor diagnosed Tripp with post-traumatic stress disorder and adjustment disorder with anxiety. Tripp filed an injury report and the paperwork for FMLA, effective through November 30 of that year.
Tripp continued counseling, but her symptoms worsened. Certain noises would trigger her anxiety; depression set in. Though she did have an upswing and was able to return to the job in December, she was not permitted to work overtime, per her doctors’ instructions. By mid 2019, Tripp was back to regular work.
Unfortunately, Tripp fielded another distressing call, in which a 14-year-old had committed suicide. The call triggered memories of the first, and Tripp began hearing the first mother’s screams in her head again.
She filed for workers’ compensation arising out of the incident but was denied.
The Iowa deputy commissioner ruled against Tripp in February 2020, noting Tripp presented a claim for a “mental-mental” injury, but her request for workers’ compensation for PTSD was not compensable under the state’s framework.
Tripp filed an application for a rehearing but was denied in March 2020. In November, the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner affirmed the decision. Tripp petitioned for judicial review.
The case escalated to the Supreme Court of Iowa, where the question of whether or not a mental injury is compensable under workers’ comp was called into play.
Reviewing past decisions by the court, the Supreme Court affirmed the standard for compensability of mental injuries is met when an employee establishes that the mental injury is “based on a manifest happening of a sudden traumatic nature from an unexpected cause or unusual strain.”
It reasoned that the clause regarding “unexpected strain” disfavored workers, such as Tripp, due to the very nature of her job addressing traumatic incidents. It reversed the lesser court’s ruling of denying Tripp benefits.
Scorecard: The court determined that in cases in which the mental injury is “based on a sudden traumatic event from an unexpected cause or unusual strain, legal causation is established without regard to the regular duties of the particular employee or other employees in similar positions.” Tripp is entitled to workers’ compensation.
Takeaway: Mental injury claims are not new, but they have become a prominent debate in workers’ compensation in recent years. To pay or not to pay for the mental claim: That truly is the question, and one that needs to be answered sooner rather than later in a claim lest a comp professional wishes to see the inside of a court room. &