Washington: School Custodian’s Tort Claim Against Employer for PTSD Resulting From Clean-up Duties Following Student’s Suicide Is Barred by Exclusivity

Last Thursday, a Washington state appellate court affirmed the dismissal of a civil action filed by a school custodian against her employer, a school district and its superintendent, alleging intentional and negligent infliction of emotion distress that allegedly resulted when the plaintiff custodian was asked to clean up the scene following a student’s suicide [see Rothwell v. Nine Mile Falls School District, Docket Number 30471–0, decided Feb. 21, 2013].  

Plaintiff contended that following the suicide, during which the student shot himself in the head, she removed medical supplies, brain matter, pieces of bone, and blood from the scene, and that it was extremely upsetting to plaintiff because she knew the victim. Plaintiff further contended that she was required to be on hand at the school after the incident to assist with refreshments associated with counseling sessions for students, that many of the students were upset and the entire matter was distressing to plaintiff. Plaintiff was seen by medical professionals and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The trial court ultimately granted the school district’s motion for summary judgment, finding that plaintiff’s sole remedy was within the workers’ compensation system (the Industrial Insurance Act). Plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court observed initially that an injury related to stress was treated as an industrial injury under RCW 51.08.100 if the stress resulted from “exposure to a single traumatic event.” Accordingly, a mental condition, such as PTSD, caused by stress could qualify as an industrial injury and fall under the coverage of the Industrial Insurance Act (IIA) if the condition resulted from a sudden, tangible, and traumatic event that produced an immediate result. The court added that the event, whether emotional or physical, must also be “of some notoriety, fixed as to time and place and susceptible of investigation.”

The appellate court held that no genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether plaintiff suffered an industrial injury under the IIA. While plaintiff contended that multiple events that occurred after the suicide caused her distress, her assertion was not enough to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether these other events contributed to her PTSD. The single event of cleaning up the suicide scene during the course of her employment was a sudden, tangible, and traumatic event that caused an immediate result. The evidence before the trial court on summary judgment established that plaintiff’s PTSD resulted from a single traumatic event and that event was a sudden, tangible, and traumatic event that produced an immediate result. As a matter of law, plaintiff’s PTSD constituted an industrial injury under the IIA.

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