More Difficult For Police To Prove ‘Abnormal Working Conditions’

While Philip Payes, a Pennsylvania state trooper, was working on November 29, 2006, a woman who apparently was mentally disturbed ran in front of his vehicle. Payes attempted to resuscitate the woman after she was struck by his patrol car but the incident resulted in a fatality. Payes filed a workers’ compensation claim for post-traumatic stress disorder. When the State denied his claim, he challenged the denial through the court system.

An appeals court upheld the denial. The Court observed that under Pennsylvania law, an employee seeking workers’ compensation benefits because of a mental stimulus resulting in a disabling psychic injury must show (1) that actual extraordinary events occurred at work that caused the trauma and that these specific events can be pinpointed in time, or (2) that abnormal working conditions over an extended period caused the psychiatric injury.

The Court noted that “although a claimant in a normally highly stressful working environment such as a police officer may not have a higher burden of proof, it is often more difficult to establish abnormal working conditions in a job that is, by its nature, highly stressful. The claimant must establish that the incident that caused his mental injury is so much more stressful and abnormal than the already highly stressful incidence of that position.”

The Court continued, “Payes, who works in the line of employment of a police officer, can be expected to be witness to horrible tragedy. This includes, as acknowledged by Payes, responding to motor vehicle accidents in an emergency capacity. Undoubtedly, in so doing, he may be subjected to traumatic visuals such as injured children, maimed adults, and, unfortunately, death. These events will not be deemed extraordinary or abnormal. Indeed, it is not beyond the realm of possibility for an officer to have to take someone’s life.

“The events that took place on November 29, 2006 were not above and beyond what would be considered normal working conditions for a state trooper. Police officers are involved in a highly stressful profession and are required to, and do, respond to emergency situations as part of their duties. Traumatic events are not out of the ordinary for a police officer and, at times, attempts at saving a life fail.

“The circumstances that resulted in Payes’ PTSD and depression are tragic. Nonetheless, we are constrained to affirm the order denying his claim.”

Payes v. W.C.A.B., 2010 WL 3894644 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2010).

This article appears in the March 2011 issue.