Ohio: Supreme Court Reiterates that Mental Injury Must Be Caused By, and Not Merely Contemporaneous With, Physical Injury To Support Comp Claim

In a divided decision affirming a ruling last year by a state intermediate appellate court, the Supreme Court of Ohio has reiterated that in order for a mental condition (here PTSD) to be compensable under the Ohio workers’ compensation system, the mental condition must be caused by a compensable physical injury sustained by the claimant–contemporaneous manifestation of the mental injury or condition with a physical injury is insufficient [Armstrong v. Jurgensen, 2013 Ohio 2237; 2013 Ohio LEXIS 1364 (June 4, 2013)].  

Reviewing a case in which a dump truck driver sustained admitted back injuries in a motor vehicle accident, the majority of the supreme court held that although the employee’s PTSD undisputedly arose contemporaneously as a result of the accident, more was required to support a mental claim. In order for the driver’s PTSD to qualify as a compensable injury under R.C. 4123.01(C)(1), the driver was required establish that his PTSD was causally related to his compensable physical injuries and not simply to his involvement in the accident. Since the record contained contradictory evidence of whether the driver’s physical injuries were a contributing cause of his PTSD and since the trial court found the testimony of the employer’s expert more credible, there was competent, credible evidence supporting the trial court’s finding that the driver’s physical injuries did not cause his PTSD and that the driver’s PTSD was, therefore, not a compensable injury under R.C. 4123.01(C)(1).

While operating a one-ton dump truck within the course and scope of his employment, Armstrong’s vehicle was struck from behind by another vehicle. Because of the speed of the other vehicle, it ended up essentially under Armstrong’s dump truck. In shock and not knowing the extent of his own injuries, Armstrong had to exit his truck because he saw leaking (and likely flamible) fluids leaking from beneath the vehicles. Armstrong also saw the other driver slumped down and motionless in the other vehicle. Armstrong later indicated that when he saw the other driver, he realized the driver was likely dying. Armstrong was transported to an emergency room where he was treated for cervical, thoracic, and lumbar strain.

Armstrong initially sought workers’ compensation benefits for his back injuries and subsequently requested an additional allowance for posttraumatic-stress disorder (“PTSD”). A staff hearing officer allowed Armstrong’s additional claim, finding his PTSD compensable because it was causally related to his industrial injury and his previously recognized physical conditions. After the Industrial Commission refused the administrative appeal, the employer appealed to the county court of common pleas.

Both Armstrong and the employer presented expert testimony regarding the cause of Armstrong’s PTSD. Armstrong’s expert testified that Armstrong developed PTSD as a result of the accident and that his physical injuries contributed to and were causal factors in his development of PTSD. The employer’s expert, on the other hand, agreed that Armstrong suffered from PTSD as a result of the accident, but opined that Armstrong’s physical injuries did not cause his PTSD. The employer’s expert testified that the PTSD was caused by witnessing the accident and “the mental observation of the severity of the injury, the fatality, [and] the fact that it could have been life-threatening to him at some point.” The expert believed that Armstrong would have developed PTSD even without his physical injuries.

The trial court held that Armstrong’s PTSD was not compensable because it did not arise from his physical injuries. The Second District Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the applicable statutory definition of “injury” [R.C. 4123.01(C)] includes psychiatric conditions only when they arise from a compensable physical injury. The court of appeals further determined that competent, credible evidence supported the trial court’s factual finding that Armstrong’s PTSD did not arise from his physical injuries.

The majority of the high court acknowledged that Armstrong undisputedly suffered compensable physical injuries as a result of the accident and that his PTSD undisputedly arose contemporaneously as a result of the accident. The majority added that in order for Armstrong’s PTSD to qualify as a compensable injury under R.C. 4123.01(C)(1), however, more was required; Armstrong had to establish that his PTSD was causally related to his compensable physical injuries and not simply to his involvement in the accident. Given the conflict in the medical testimony, with Armstrong’s expert indicating his PTSD was caused by the physical injury and the employer’s expert indicating the PTSD accompanied–but was not directly caused by–the physical injury, it was for the trial court to weigh the evidence. The majority indicated it had done so and had found the employer’s expert to be more credible. Competent, credible evidence supported the trial court’s finding that Armstrong’s physical injuries did not cause his PTSD and that Armstrong’s PTSD was, therefore, not a compensable injury under R.C. 4123.01(C)(1).

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