Ohio Court Nixes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Claim in Spite of Close Ties With Truck Driver’s Compensable Physical Injuries

A divided Ohio appellate court recently affirmed a trial court’s final judgment that denied a dump truck driver’s claim for post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) in spite of strong medical evidence that the disorder arose out of a violent work-related vehicular accident in which the driver’s truck was struck from the rear by a van traveling at a high rate of speed. [Armstrong v. Jurgenson Co., 2011 Ohio 6708, 2011 Ohio App. LEXIS 5521 (Dec. 23, 2011)]. The truck driver, who sustained back and shoulder strains and a left post-labial tear in the accident, saw that antifreeze, oil, and gasoline were leaking from his truck, feared it would catch fire, and left his cab. The force of the collision had propelled the van and its driver under the back of the dump truck. The dump truck driver also saw that the other driver was severely injured–he would soon succumb to his injuries–and the dump truck driver later described his own condition as being in “total shock.”  

The truck driver eventually underwent surgery for his shoulder injury, filed a claim for workers’ compensation related to his physical injuries, and the claim was allowed. Soon after the accident, however, the driver began to have nightmares in which he dreamed he was stuck inside the dump truck after the accident and unable to get out. In the dreams he often saw the van driver’s face and a slow-motion reenactment of the van hitting his truck. He also experienced panic attacks while riding as a passenger in an automobile and bouts of sadness and crying spells in response to references to the van driver and his family.

After a licensed psychologist diagnosed his symptoms as PTSD, the truck driver amended his workers’ compensation claim to include his psychiatric injury, which the Industrial Commission allowed. The employer’s appeal to the court of common pleas was sustained, however. The trial court reasoned that strictly construing the definition of “injury” under ORC Ann. § 4123.01(C), the driver’s PTSD did not arise out of his physical injuries.

2006 Amendment of § 4123.01(C) in Reaction to Bailey

At issue was a 2006 amendment to § 4123.01, in apparent reaction to Bailey v. Republic Engineered Steels, Inc., 91 Ohio St.3d 38, 2001 Ohio 236. In Bailey, an employee suffered debilitating depression as a result of an accident in which he accidentally killed a coworker. The Supreme Court held that a psychiatric condition arising from a compensable injury suffered by a third party–the coworker–was not precluded from the definition of an injury under the terms of R.C. 4123.01(C)(1). After Bailey, the state legislature amended the statute by limiting compensable psychiatric conditions suffered by a claimant to those which “have arisen from an injury or occupational disease sustained by that claimant” [emphasis added].

It should be observed that in the instant case neither party disputed that the truck driver suffered a compensable physical injury, that he suffered PTSD, or that his physical injuries at least contributed to his PTSD. The parties only disagreed about how to construe the language “arisen from an injury … sustained by that claimant …” found in § 4123.01. The driver argued that the wording should be interpreted as requiring a claimant to show only that he suffered his psychiatric condition contemporaneously with his compensable physical injury. The employer argued that the 2006 amendment showed the legislature’s intent to distinguish between those psychiatric conditions that arose from physical injuries and those that were reactions to the injurious event or to the injuries of other persons. The employer argued that only the former could be compensable. The employer also contended that, in line with the expert testimony, the truck driver’s physical injuries only “contributed” to the development of the PTSD, making the relationship between the driver’s physical injuries and his PTSD correlative, not causal.

Driver’s Injuries Caused by Reaction to Other Driver’s Injuries

The majority of the appellate court agreed with the employer. Noting that the psychologist had opined that the driver’s PTSD was not actually caused by his physical conditions–the cervicothoracic lumbar problems–but by rather by his being a visual witness of the incident, by the mental observation of the severity of the other driver’s injury, the court indicated that under the language of § 4123.01(C), a contemporaneous relationship between a physical injury and his mental injury was insufficient; the driver must show a causative relationship. Moreover, it was insufficient to show a causal relationship between the driver’s PTSD and any physical injury; the physical injury must be one that he, himself, had sustained.

The majority indicated that there was competent, credible evidence from which the trial court could find that the driver’s psychiatric condition did not arise from the physical injuries he suffered, but was instead the result of the driver’s reaction to the horrific fatal injuries sustained by the other driver when their vehicles collided. The majority indictated the trial court was free to reject the testimony of a second expert which tended to support the driver’s “contemporaneous event” theory. Since the trial court’s judgment was not against the manifest weight of the evidence, it must be affirmed.

Justice Fain dissented, indicating that that a liberal construction of R.C. 4123.01(C) would require the court to hold that a psychological or psychiatric condition is compensable if it otherwise meets the requirements for participation in the workers’ compensation system and is contemporaneous with a compensable physical injury.

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