In Pennsylvania, for an employee to succeed in bringing a workers’ compensation claim for a psychological disability, the employee must ordinarily show that the disability “was more than a subjective reaction to normal working conditions.” Pennsylvania courts have struggled for years trying to apply this standard to public safety employees.
The case of Rodney Washington is a good example of how difficult it is for a public safety employee to show that a particular event, no matter how horrific, is “abnormal.” Washington was a trooper with the Pennsylvania State Police, assigned to the Forensic Services Unit. In 1998, Washington was involved in the investigation of a murder/suicide in which an estranged father set his vehicle on fire burning himself and his eight-month old infant daughter to death inside. In addition to photographing the vehicle and the bodies at the crime scene, Washington attended the baby’s autopsy and filed a report regarding his documentation of the crime scene via photographs.
On December 31, 2003, Washington was called to investigate a homicide involving an infant that later became known as the “Baby Jane Doe” case. Washington went to the crime scene where he observed a plastic bag sitting upon debris in a 55-gallon burn barrel located by a picket fence near a one-room schoolhouse. He saw an infant girl in the bag. He took photographs of the burn barrel, the infant inside the bag, and the surrounding area. He left the immediate scene to photograph other areas, and he was called back to the crime scene. He saw that the infant had been removed from the barrel and laid upon a plastic blanket. He saw that the top of the infant’s head had soot on it, and that the infant’s leg, heel and/or knee had been partially burned or charred. After taking photographs of the infant on the blanket, he tilted the infant’s head back by placing two of his fingers on her forehead, and saw that the infant’s throat had been cut. He observed that the umbilical cord was still attached to the infant’s body. He also attended and photographed the autopsy that was conducted on January 2, 2004.
An appeals court turned down Washington’s workers’ compensation claim for post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the incidents. The Court observed that it had “repeatedly recognized that the job of police officer is one which is inherently highly stressful. Although testimony may be presented that certain police officers have never witnessed horrible trauma and/or death, that testimony is not necessarily dispositive. The determining factor is what is extraordinary or abnormal for a person in the same line of work.
“Here, Washington’s activities with respect to the ‘Baby Jane Doe’ investigation were normal and routine activities relating to his job as an FSU member. The activities described by Washington in this case, providing forensic and photographic services, and attending autopsies, are drawn straight from his job description. Forensic services involve documenting, preserving and collecting physical evidence, which could be the body of a dead infant.
“Indeed, Washington testified that a foreseeable aspect of his FSU job would be investigating homicides regardless of the victim’s age, and that all of his activities in the ‘Baby Jane Doe’ investigation were normal and routine activities relating to his FSU job. Thus, although such activities may have been unusual for Washington to endure as a member of the FSU, they do not constitute the requisite abnormal working conditions to support the award of compensation benefits in this case.”
Washington v. W.C.A.B., 2011 WL 13929 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2011).
This article appears in the February 2011 issue