Kentucky Requires Physically Traumatic Event For Stress Claim To Be Compensable

Different states follow a variety of standards in assessing stress claims filed by law enforcement officers and firefighters. The most restrictive of the approaches was demonstrated in a recent decision from the Kentucky Supreme Court.

The case involved Charles Kubajak, a police officer with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government. After a stint in patrol, Kubajak transferred to the crime scene investigation unit, where he photographed crime scenes, recovered latent fingerprints, collected evidence, and appeared in court. His work with the unit involved daily exposure to the details of scenes of extreme and graphic violence.

By the mid-1990s, Kubajak was experiencing headaches and stomach discomfort. His symptoms worsened appreciatively after working the scene where two fellow officers were shot. On occasions, he experienced chest pains severe enough that he went to the hospital, thinking he was having a heart attack.

Kubajak began to suffer from nightmares in which he relived some of the crime scenes he had worked. After his 1996 transfer to the auto theft unit, his flashbacks and nightmares became more intense and more frequent. After a series of other assignments, Kubajak was no better emotionally, and was considering suicide. He began treatment with a psychologist, who diagnosed posttraumatic stress disorder. Kubajak was placed on medical leave in January 2001, and applied for workers’ compensation benefits.

Though the three psychiatrists and the one psychologist who examined Kubajak all agreed that he suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder that was not only disabling but work-related, the Kentucky Supreme Court turned down Kubajak’s request for workers’ compensation benefits. The Court found that Kubajak was unable to prove that he sustained an “injury” as required by Kentucky law.

Under a Kentucky statute, an “injury” is a work-related traumatic event or series of such events “that causes a harmful change in the human organism.” The statute requires that a psychological, psychiatric, or stress-related “change in the human organism must be a direct result of a physical injury.”

The Court found that Kubajak was unable to prove that he suffered such a physical injury. In the Court’s view, Kubajak’s “psychiatric harm was an after-the-fact exposure to scenes of physical trauma. The statute requires a psychiatric harm to be a direct result of a physically traumatic event. Therefore, we are not convinced that physical harm to another constitutes a physically traumatic event to the workers’ compensation claimant for purposes of the statute.”

The Court’s decision was by a five-three margin. The three dissenting judges argued that the Kentucky definition of “injury” could well involve physical trauma to others, a view it believes to be “consistent with medical science.”

Kubajak v. Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, 2005 WL 3500042 (Ky. 2005).

NOTE: The law in other states is not as restrictive as that in Kentucky. Only days earlier, an Illinois Court of Appeals upheld a police officer’s workers’ compensation claim for “panic attacks” that began while the officer was doing undercover narcotics work. The officer’s panic attacks were not precipitated by any physical injury. Village of Stickney v. Board of Trustees, 2005 WL 3481356 (Ill.App. 2005).

This article appears in the March 2006 issue