Psychological injuries without physical injuries are not compensable

| January 15, 2013 | Articles

worker-depressionIn some cases, employees who have suffered an emotional or psychological injury in the course of their job may seek benefits under Oklahoma’s Workers’ Compensation Act. However, a recent Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals decision reinforces the fact that psychological or emotional claims are only successful when linked to a compensable physical injury.

Helm’s psychological injury

Mark Helm had worked for the Norman Fire Department for 15 years. As a firefighter, Helm had “been through some pretty horrific accidents and deaths,” but the August 28, 2005, emergency run really affected him. Helm responded to a call where two young boys were trapped in the trunk of a car for several hours during the heat of the summer. Helm treated the boys, who were transported by ambulance and later died at the hospital.

Helm had young children himself, including a son the same age as one of the boys and another son who shared one of the boys’ names. Helm’s life was turned upside down. His alcohol intake increased, he became depressed, had difficulty working, and eventually divorced.

Helm suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. According to his doctor, his PTSD and depression resulted from the August 28, 2005, emergency run. Helm filed a workers’ compensation claim against the City of Norman for his PTSD and depression. His doctor’s report and testimony concluded that Helm’s PTSD altered chemicals and caused chemical changes in his brain and body. According to Helm’s doctor and the Workers’ Compensation Court, those changes amounted to a “physical injury to the brain.”

There must be a physical injury

In City of Norman v. Helm, 2012 OK CIV APP 107, the City of Norman appealed the Workers’ Compensation Court’s findings to Oklahoma’s Court of Civil Appeals. The City did not contest the fact that Helm suffered from PTSD and depression, and it did not challenge that those conditions resulted from Helm’s August 28, 2005, emergency run. Instead, the City of Norman pointed out that Helm’s psychological and emotional conditions were not compensable under Oklahoma law because they were only psychological injuries. The City was right.

Under 85 OKLA. STAT. § 308(13)(f), Oklahoma’s Workers’ Compensation Act limits recovery for mental injuries as follows: “Compensable injury” shall not include mental injury that does not arise directly as a result of a compensable physical injury, except in the case of rape or other crime of violence which arises out of in the course of employment. Oklahoma’s Court of Appeals also pointed to a 1990 decision, where a prison employee was taken hostage during a riot and suffered severe emotional consequences, including depression and PTSD. In that case, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court denied compensability because the prison guard did not sustain any physical injury along with his mental disorders. Based upon the statutory definition and the earlier Supreme Court decision, the Court of Appeals agreed with the City of Norman and found Helm’s injuries were not compensable, inasmuch as they were purely mental in nature.

As our medical and diagnostic skills regarding psychological conditions advance, Oklahoma employers will doubtless face more claims for job-related psychological injuries in the future. For the time being, because of the statutory definition and this recent Court of Appeals case, mental injuries without an associated physical injury are not covered by Oklahoma’s Workers’ Compensation Act.


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Charlie Plumb

About the author

Charlie Plumb is a labor and employment attorney with the McAfee & Taft law firm. He represents management in all phases of employment law and labor relations. Much of his practice is dedicated to counseling employers on compliance with a broad range of state and federal employment laws and regulations and educating management on best practices for avoiding disputes arising from the employer/employee relationship. He also has extensive litigation experience before federal and state courts, regulatory and administrative agencies, and in arbitration matters involving claims of discrimination, wrongful discharge, retaliatory discharge, breach of contract, and constitutional law violations.

As part of his labor practice, Charlie represents unionized employers in collective bargaining negotiations with labor unions, arbitrates grievances, and defends management against a variety of claims before the National Labor Relations Board and Department of Justice and in state and federal courts. He also represents employers who seek to maintain a non-unionized workforce by counseling management on union avoidance strategies and by providing training and advice to management and supervisors. His clients include numerous municipalities throughout Oklahoma and companies engaged in the manufacturing and distribution, construction, energy, public utility, technology and business services industries.

Charlie is a member of the American Bar Association’s Labor and Employment Law Section and the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Labor Council. He is also the designated representative of McAfee & Taft as the exclusive member firm representing Oklahoma in the Employers Counsel Network, a nationwide affiliation of leading law firms providing legal assistance and representation to employers.

Charlie is a frequent speaker and author on workplace issues. He is also co-editor of the Oklahoma Employment Law Letter, a monthly review of new court decisions, regulations and laws that affect state employers.

Charlie’s achievements have earned him inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America (labor and employment law), Oklahoma Super Lawyers (employment and labor, civil litigation defense), Benchmark Litigation and Chambers USA Guide to America’s Leading Lawyers for Business, where he has been lauded as “an impressive public speaker who utilizes his vast experience to effectively defend clients.” Researchers at Chambers & Partners also quoted market observers as admiring him for his “practicality of advice and specialized knowledge of complex legal issues,” with sources commenting that he “immediately commands respect, is always up to date and knows how to handle a problem.”