Workers Comp Limitation On Stress Claims Not Unconstitutional

Timothy Matthews began training with the Tucson Police Department in Au­gust 2000 after passing the necessary pre-employment physical and psychological examinations. In 2009 while off duty, Matthews passed by an accident involving a car that hit a police officer on a bicycle. Matthews responded to the scene. He later learned the officer had died.

Afterward, Matthews told his supervisor that the incident was negatively af­fecting him. He was subsequently sent to a psychiatrist, but the incident was never reported as an industrial accident for workers’ compensation purposes.

In 2011, Matthews was promoted to detective. He worked in the violent crimes section for six years and then in the street crimes unit. In March 2018, Matthews transferred to the domestic violence unit. During these years, Matthews continued to receive professional mental health care.

In June 2018, Matthews responded to an active domestic violence scene where an armed suspect was barricaded with his ex-wife and stepson in a residential garage. Officers stationed around the home eventually breached the garage door. The suspect, visibly bleeding from a self-inflicted chest wound, then attempted to crawl out of the garage with his hand raised. The responding officers pulled him out of the garage and administered first aid, but the suspect died at the scene. Matthews watched this unfold on the live stream. He was later assigned to inspect the suspect’s body and photograph the crime scene.

After this incident, Matthews began having nightmares, flashbacks, and dif­ficulties concentrating on the job. Matthews reported these issues to his captain. Additionally, Matthews sought care from his treating psychiatrist and the City’s doctor. Both physicians recommended Matthews be relieved from his work duties.

Matthews filed an industrial injury claim arising from the June 2018 inci­dent, claiming that it exacerbated his preexisting PTSD. Tristar Risk Manage­ment, the City of Tucson’s insurer, denied Matthews’ claim. In October 2019, an administrative law judge issued a decision finding Matthews’ claims for mental injuries non-compensable because the June 2018 incident was not an “unexpected, unusual or extraordinary stress” situation as required under Arizona law. After an unsuccessful stop in the Arizona Court of Appeals, Matthews appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court.

The Court rejected Matthews’ claim. The Court’s opinion turned on Article 18, Section 8 of the Arizona Constitution, which provides constitutionally-guaran­teed benefits for workers injured in an accident “in the course of such employment personal injury caused in whole, or in part, or contributed to, by a necessary risk or danger of such employment, or a necessary risk or danger inherent in the nature thereof, or by failure of such employer, or any of his or its agents or employee or employees to exercise due care, or to comply with any law affecting such employment.”

Matthews argued that by requir­ing workers’ compensation claimants to prove their mental injuries were caused by “unexpected, unusual or extraordinary stress,” the workers’ compensation statutes unconstitu­tionally restricts legal causation by creating an assumption of the risk defense. The Court disagreed.

The Court reasoned that “Mat­thews focuses on the constitutional provision’s words, ‘necessary risk or danger of such employment.’ By adding the statutory modifier ‘un­expected, unusual or extraordinary,’ Matthews argues, the legislature un­constitutionally constrained the types of risks that could trigger workers’ compensation eligibility.

“But that begs the question: what claims are encompassed by Article 18, Section 8? All agree that an injury by accident is the predicate for coverage. If the definition of those terms when our constitution was adopted in 1912 did not encompass mental stress in­juries, then such coverage exists only to the extent it has subsequently been made available by the legislature.

“An authoritative dictionary pub­lished at the time our constitution was adopted defines ‘injury’ as ‘that which occasions harm morally or physically; detriment; loss; damage.’ New Webste­rian Dictionary (1912). That definition reflects its common usage at the time. A corpus linguistics review of the term reveals that ‘injury’ connotes physical, reputational, community (e.g., a person has ‘done the city a greater injury than any man who ever lived in Westville’), or property harm. Importantly, none of the common uses identified through corpus linguistics encompass a traumatic event or series of events, whether anticipated in the scope of employment or not, that cause or exacerbate a serious mental stress illness.

“We do not hitch constitutional meaning to the evolving state of sci­entific art or ‘modern medical opin­ion.’ Such changes or advances are relevant to medical causation, which the parties agree is established in this case, but not to legal causation, which is defined here by the constitution. It may be that our organic law and statutes should be revised to reflect advances in medical understanding. The ALJ properly relied on extensive evidence that the traumatizing events Matthews experienced were a known and expected danger of the job.”

Matthews v. Industrial Commission of Arizona, 2022 WL 17172180 (Ariz. 2022).

This article appears in the March 2023 issue of our monthly newsletter, Public Safety Labor News.

Also in the March 2023 issue:

  • Court Upholds Chicago Police Vaccination Requirement
  • ‘Thin Red Line’ Flag Not Protected Union Material
  • Unilateral Shift Change After Citizen Complaint Deemed Due Process Violation
  • Dispatcher Loses Job For Refusing To Get Vaccinated
  • Officer’s Conduct, Not Race, Produced Discipline
  • Officer’s Suicide ‘Line Of Duty’ Death
  • Police Dispatchers Not Entitled To Double-Time Pay
  • Officer Not Coerced Into Retiring
  • City To Pay $1.6 Million For Firefighter Staffing Violation
  • Lying About Sick Leave Basis For Demotion
  • Q & A
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