When you think of a worker’s compensation injury the first thing you probably think of is someone sustaining a physical injury, such as a back, knee or wrist injury, while performing some type of job.
When you think of a worker’s compensation injury the first thing you probably think of is someone sustaining a physical injury, such as a back, knee or wrist injury, while performing some type of job. The majority of all workers’ compensation claims fall into the category of physical injuries. In 2014 The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated there were 3.0 million reported workplace injuries in the United States. However, of that number psychological claims represented a tiny percentage of all workers’ compensation claims. Although, the total number of workers’ compensation claims involving mental or psychological claims are beginning to spike.
Psychological injuries in the workers’ compensation arena usually fall into three different categories. A physical/mental claim involves a workplace injury where someone suffers a physical harm that causes psychological problems. A mental/physical claim involves a psychological condition arising out of the workers’ employment that has caused a physical injury. A mental/mental claim involves a psychological situation where someone experiences mental harm that is a result of a mental stimulus rather than a physical stimulus.
A person can suffer psychological harm as a result of their work duties for a number of different reasons, and can experience different symptoms of psychological injuries. For example, some types of psychiatric injuries include:
Anxiety: A mental health disorder characterized by feelings of worry, anxiety, or fear that they are strong enough to interfere with one’s daily activities.
Depression: A mood disorder causing a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A mental health condition triggered by experiencing or seeing a terrifying event.
Insomnia: Persistent problems falling and staying asleep.
In Georgia not all psychological injuries are covered under workers’ compensation. In order to fall within the purview of the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act, and in order for a psychic injury to be compensable, there must be a discernable physical injury. The Supreme Court addressed psychological injuries in Southwire Co. v. George, 266 Ga 739, 470 S.E.2d 865 (1996). In Southwire, a truck driver for Southwire Company suffered injuries to his knee, hip, and chest when his tractor trailer hit a passenger vehicle that ran a stop light. The driver of the other vehicle was thrown from the vehicle, and a female passenger was killed instantly from the accident. George saw the body of the deceased female collide with the grill on the front of his truck. He went to the same emergency room with the other driver, who sustained a disfigured face, and who was screaming and asking for the deceased female passenger. George was so upset that he had to be removed from the room. Two months later George was released to return to full duty work by his authorized treating physician for the physical injuries, but he continued to treat with his psychiatrist for post-traumatic stress disorder. The Administrative Law Judge denied benefits for George’s psychiatric disability resulting from the psychic trauma. The Court of Appeals reversed and held: “George’s mental disability was brought on by a compensable accident in which he was physically injured. Although the physical injury is not the cause of his mental disability, it is the reason for its continuation.” The Supreme Court held that a Claimant is entitled to benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act for mental disability and psychic treatment, which, while not necessarily precipitated by a physical injury, arouse out of an accident in which a compensable physical injury was sustained, and that injury contributes to the continuation of the psychic trauma. The physical injury need not be the precipitating cause of the psychic trauma; it is compensable if the physical injury contributes to the continuation of the psychic trauma.
The Court of Appeals revisited the issue involving psychological claims in Dekalb County Board of Education v. Singleton, 294 Ga. App.96, 668 S.E. 2d 767 (2008). In this case, Singleton was a bus driver for the DeKalb County school board, where she was responsible for driving a small bus for special needs children. Singleton’s job duties included inspecting the bus before each route, and assisting the special needs children on and off the bus. Singleton was exposed to extreme elements, including heat, cold, bus fumes, and cleaning fumes. Singleton had a history of asthma, had a sister to die of an asthma attack, and another sister on disability for asthma. Singleton was fairly asymptomatic except for a few flare ups. DeKalb County parked their buses during the summer months, and when school was not in session. On August 8, 2005, upon returning to school after the summer break, Singleton discovered her bus was covered in a white powder, which she thought was fire extinguisher residue. Singleton attempted to clean the bus with paper towels and hand sanitizer. After cleaning the bus as much as possible, Singleton drove the bus to the designated parking lot, which took her approximately 35 to 40 minutes. She parked her bus and got into her own personal vehicle, where she began to feel weak and drowsy. Later in the evening, Singleton began coughing and having trouble breathing. She sought medical attention, and was diagnosed with an asthma attack. She was discharged, instructed to follow-up with her personal physician, and released to return to work with no restrictions the next day. Singleton did not return to work the following day after her release. Singleton continued to treat with her own physician, who noted in her medical records that the incident with the fire extinguisher reside aggravated her asthma condition. Dekalb County sent Singleton to a panel physician, and during the examination she became emotion and developed tachycardia and started coughing. The physician agreed that Singleton had asthma bought indicated she was capable of full duty work. However, he stated that any exposure to extreme elements could cause another attack, and her ability to drive the school bus could be impaired. Singleton was later evaluated by a psychologist who diagnosed her with depression, and recommended short term treatment.
The Administrative Law Judge found that Singleton sustained a compensable injury, and the work-related inhalation injury aggravated her preexisting asthma. In addition, her psychological conditions of depression, anxiety, and adjustment disorder were compensable injuries. The Court of Appeal relied on the Southwire case, and upheld the Administrative Law Judge’s original Award, and set two conditions precedent for psychological injuries to be compensable: (1) it must arise out of an accident in which a compensable physical injury was sustained; and (2) while the physical injury need not be the precipitating cause of the psychological conditions or problems, at a minimum, the physical injury must contribute to the continuation of the psychological trauma.
As you can see from the two cases above, psychological claims in Georgia are on the rise, and the Court has set out guidelines on how these claims are interpreted. Although each state differs on how they interpret which psychological claims are compensable, Georgia is clear that it must result naturally and unavoidable from a physical occurrence. Once the physical injury has been established, whether it be a minor physical injury, there must be a nexus between the physical injury and the resulting psychic trauma.