In Some States, Physical Injury Required For PTSD Claims

The workers’ compensation or pension systems of different states have a variety of standards for evaluating claims for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One of the strictest standards requires a firefighter or law enforcement officer to prove not just that they have PTSD which has been caused by the job, but that the PTSD arose alongside of a “physical injury.” Oklahoma follows this strict standard, and as City of Norman firefighter Mark Helm learned, bringing a successful PTSD claim under the standard is a difficult proposition.

On August 28, 2005, Helm responded to a call of two small boys trapped in the trunk of a car. Upon arriving on scene, Helm tended to a four-year-old boy, who was still breathing but “was basically in heat stroke.” Helm, who has ten children, stated that the boy was the same age and had the same name as one of his sons.

When neither of the boys survived, Helm began having symptoms of PTSD, including flashbacks and nightmares. Helm began drinking, and his marriage ended in divorce. Doctors diagnosed Helm with depression and PTSD, tying the conditions to the August 28 incident. Helm filed a workers’ compensation claim, and his case wound up in an Oklahoma appeals court.

The Court rejected Helms’ claim for workers’ compensation. The Court started with the proposition that under Oklahoma law, “any psychological or mental injury be accompanied by physical injury in order to receive disability benefits for a debilitating psychological condition.” Under this standard, Helm would lose his claim as he suffered no physical injury.

Helm pointed to the testimony of his doctor that his PTSD and depression actually did have physical manifestations in that physical changes to Helm’s brain resulted from his condition. The Court rejected Helms’ argument, reasoning that the Oklahoma Supreme Court “has consistently categorized mental/psychological disorders, including PTSD, as mental injuries, despite their physical manifestations. Helms’ attempt to classify his PTSD as a physical injury rather than as a psychological or mental injury is unconvincing. Although the medical community’s understanding of the underlying physical ramifications of PTSD may have changed over the past two decades, this apparent advance in neuroscience has not changed the clear legislative intent expressed in Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation laws. While this Court has little doubt, pursuant to Dr. Wilson’s medical report and deposition, that PTSD can now be described in a physical way, it is clearly a ‘mental injury’ rather than a ‘physical injury’ under the statute.”

City of Norman v. Helm, 291 P.3d 640 (Okla. Civ. App. Div. 2 2012).