This article appears in the May 2019 issue of our monthly newsletter Public Safety Labor News.
Benjamin Pitts was a police officer with the City of Chandler, Arizona. In May 2013, Pitts was on duty in his patrol vehicle with his fiancée, who was participating in a ride-along. That evening, Pitts received a call that there was a man acting in a disorderly manner and possibly brandishing a gun outside Chandler Regional Hospital. The dispatcher told Pitts the man was walking up the road with hospital security guards following at a distance.
Upon arriving in his patrol car, Pitts directed his spotlight at a man fitting the suspect’s description. The man then stopped, leveled his gun, and fired. The first bullet shattered the windshield, spraying glass toward Pitts’ face and eyes. As multiple bullets continued to pelt the car, Pitts got out and returned fire. Pitts shot the man in the shoulder, ending the gunfight. Neither Pitts nor his fiancée were injured by the spray of bullets.
Pitts took three weeks off work after the incident. A week or two into his leave, his superiors required him to see the police department psychologist, who advised Pitts to “get back on that horse.” Although Pitts told the psychologist he felt unready to work, he resumed his duties a week later. The psychologist did not provide a diagnosis at that time, and Pitts did not seek or receive any additional treatment related to the shooting incident.
Almost a year later, the man went on trial for shooting at Pitts. Pitts attended the three-week trial daily and testified about the events of that evening. The shooter was convicted and sentenced to over 50 years in prison. Between the shooting incident and the trial, Pitts experienced emotional problems, including difficulty sleeping and nightmares, anxiety, and social withdrawal. Pitts also became hypervigilant – constantly assessing potential threats to his safety and that of his family.
A year after the trial, the shooter’s sentence was reduced. Pitts testified at the hearing that the sentence reduction was a “gut punch.” In his opinion, the reduction in sentence was based solely on a legal technicality. Over the next six months, Pitts’ depression worsened: he lost interest in his children and home life, began having panic and anxiety attacks at work, and experienced tunnel vision, insomnia, dissociative episodes where he lost track of time, and a hollow echoing sound in his ears.
At the recommendation of fellow officers, Pitts saw a trauma psychologist in January 2016. This was the first time a medical professional diagnosed him with dissociative complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to the shooting incident. Based on this medical assessment, he was taken off patrol duty. Pitts then filed a workers’ compensation claim. When the City denied the claim as untimely, Pitts appealed.
The Court found that “a compensable injury becomes manifest – and the one-year period begins to run – when the injured employee recognizes the nature of his injury, the seriousness of the injury, and the probable causal relationship between the injury and the employment. In contrast to many physical injuries where a diagnosis is immediate and obvious, the emergence of a mental health injury is difficult to pinpoint.
Rejecting the City’s argument, the Arizona Court of Appeals found that the claim was timely. The Court recited the general rule that a workers’ compensation claim in Arizona must be filed “within one year after the injury occurred or the right thereto accrued.” The Court found that “a compensable injury becomes manifest – and the one-year period begins to run – when the injured employee recognizes the nature of his injury, the seriousness of the injury, and the probable causal relationship between the injury and the employment. In contrast to many physical injuries where a diagnosis is immediate and obvious, the emergence of a mental health injury is difficult to pinpoint. “Characteristic symptoms of PTSD after exposure to a traumatic event include the presence of the following: intrusion symptoms such as recurrent distressing dreams or memories or prolonged psychological distress after exposure to stimuli related to the traumatic event; persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the event, such as internal or external reminders; negative alterations in cognition and mood, such as memory loss of the event, lowered self-esteem, or detachment from others; marked alterations in personality; clinically significant impairment in important areas of functioning; and that any of these characteristic disturbances exceed one month and are not attributable to any other cause.
“In this case, the record shows that Pitts experienced a traumatic incident. He then developed symptoms that increased in nature and severity over a period of years. Pitts was not diagnosed with PTSD, however, until January 2016, and there is no evidence to show that his symptoms had become acute enough to allow a diagnosis of PTSD before that time.
“Despite the complex nature of a PTSD diagnosis, the City did not offer the necessary evidence to resolve when the injury became compensable or when Pitts knew or should have known that his injury had become acute enough to constitute a compensable claim. The City, which bears the burden of production in the affirmative defense of untimeliness – did not produce evidence to identify at what point in time Pitts’ condition required him to file a claim. Thus, the City failed to meet its burden of proving the claim untimely.”
Pitts v. Industrial Commission of Arizona, 2019 WL 1285039 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2019).
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