On Wednesday, a divided Supreme Court of South Carolina affirmed a unanimous finding of an Appellate Panel of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Commission that a deputy sheriff failed to meet his burden of proof in establishing a compensable mental injury that arose from an “unusual or extraordinary condition” of employment in connection with his shooting of a suspect during a disturbance in Spartanburg County [Bentley v. Spartanburg County, Opinion No. 27140, July 11, 2012].
The deputy was dispatched to a residence following a call involving disturbances between neighbors. As the deputy stepped from his patrol car, he saw a man in khaki shorts standing outside the corner of the residence. The deputy indicated that when he asked the man to approach him so that they could talk, the man gestured “in an offensive posture” with an umbrella and threatened to take the deputy’s gun and kill him. The deputy fired one shot, resulting in the death of the man.
The deputy contended that following the incident, he began to suffer psychological symptoms including anxiety and depression. He sought treatment. His psychiatrist and psychologist concluded that the deputy was unable to work.
The deputy sought workers’ compensation benefits, but the single commissioner found that the event was not an unusual or extraordinary condition of the deputy’s work and that he had not, therefore, suffered a compensable mental injury arising out of the employment. The appellate panel affirmed.
Citing Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, § 56.06, the court observed that while a majority of states allowed compensation for mental-mental claims, some, such as South Carolina, required that the employee’s employment conditions causing the stress, mental injury, or mental illness be “extraordinary and unusual” in comparison to the normal conditions of the particular employment [S.C. Code Ann. § 42-1-160].
The majority added:
Although we are constrained to decide this case according to the standard mandated by the General Assembly, we offer our opinion that this standard should be updated to account for the scientific and technological progress in medicine and psychology, which have undermined the old public policy argument used to deny mental-mental recovery.
According to the majority, a “lack of understanding about mental-mental injuries fueled the negative reaction toward allowing recovery.” Advances in medical science now make it easier for medical professionals to diagnose and verify the validity of mental injuries. The majority indicated it agreed with those who promoted reform. Nevertheless, the court was constrained by the statute that existed, not the statute that it would like to see. Distinguishing Stokes v. First National Bank, 306 S.C. 46, 410 S.E.2d 248 (1991), in which benefits were allowed to a banker whose work hours were increased substantially and whose stress load caused a mental breakdown and Shealy v. Aiken County, 341 S.C. 448, 535 S.E.2d 438 (2000), in which benefits were awarded to a deputy sheriff who was hired to work as a “deep cover” narcotics agent, the majority indicated that the use of deadly force was within the normal scope and duties of a Spartanburg County deputy sheriff.
The majority offered that the deputy would like it to reframe the issue and ask instead “whether killing another human being is ‘unusual.’” According to the majority, such a tack would contradict Shealy’s command to look at the conditions of the particular employment in which the injury occurs and not to condition of employment in general. The fatal shooting was not extraordinary and unusual.
Justice Hearn, joined by Justice Beatty, dissented.