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Appellate Court Analyzes Psychological Injuries

Attorneys and claims examiners analyzing the compensability of psychological injuries often find that the standards set forth in Illinois case law and the Worker’s Compensation Act are imprecise.  A recent case before the Illinois First District Appellate Court clarified and reiterated the criterion for determining whether a petitioner’s psychological injuries are compensable

In Chicago Transit Authority v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Com’n, et al., Sylvia Timms, No. 1–12–0253 WC, 2013 WL 1830343 (1st Dist. 2013), the Appellate Court affirmed the decision of the Cook County Circuit Court, which, along with the Workers’ Compensation Commission and Arbitrator, found that the Petitioner’s psychological injuries were compensable.

The petitioner was working as a bus driver for Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) on March 18, 2010, when she struck and killed a passenger from the bus who had exited the bus momentarily before.  The petitioner did not realize that she had collided with someone until after a different passenger alerted her that someone was chasing and hitting the bus.  The petitioner stopped the bus and approached the victim, who was lying down next to the curb and not making any sounds.

After speaking with paramedics, police officers, and CTA officials, the petitioner was taken to one of the CTA’s garages where she was informed that the victim had passed away.  The petitioner testified that she was feeling “shaken” and “a little depressed.”  The petitioner’s supervisor referred to referred her to “comp psych.” to seek treatment at that time but the petitioner declined to do so.

The petitioner was temporarily suspended from work and then, after a hearing, permanently terminated on April 28, 2010.  Approximately eight weeks after the accident, the petitioner requested that CTA provide her with medical assistance to help her with her psychological problems, stating that she had not sought assistance earlier because she was attempting to cope with it on her own.  The petitioner was denied assistance from CTA and decided to seek treatment herself.

On May 28, 2010, the petitioner began treating with Dr. Dan Kelly, a clinical psychologist.  The petitioner testified that the image of the victim lying on the street continued to come back into her mind and also that she was depressed, had trouble sleeping, and had realized that she was unable to cope with the tragedy on her own.

Dr. Kelly diagnosed the petitioner as suffering from adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood and opined that the petitioner was unable to work due to psychological trauma from the accident of March 18, 2010.  The petitioner was treated with psychotherapy and a desensitization program, as well as antidepressant and a sleep aid medication.

The employer had argued that the petitioner’ alleged depression was not compensable for four reasons:

(1)                           The petitioner did not immediately seek professional help for her alleged psychological injuries.

(2)                           The petitioner had returned to work prior to her termination on April 28, 2010.

(3)                           The petitioner had been using public transportation approximately four months after the accident.

(4)                           The petitioner did not directly witness the accident.

The Appellate Court began its analysis by citing Pathfinder Co. v. Industrial Commission, 62 Ill.2d 556 (Ill. 1976), the landmark case that ruled that psychological injuries that are not caused by physical trauma, so called “mental-mental” cases, can still be compensable if the claimant experiences, “sudden, severe emotional shock traceable to a definite time, place and cause which causes psychological injury or harm…”.

The Court rejected all four arguments, addressing the first argument in the greatest detail.  The employer had argued that claimants can only recover if their resulting psychological injuries were “immediately apparent” citing General Motors Parts Div. v. Industrial Com’n, 168 Ill.App.3d at 687 (1st Dist. 1988).

The Court distinguished General Motors, finding that General Motors involved a claim of psychological injuries that escalated over a period of time and involving multiple, non-traumatic events, rather than one traumatic incident.  The Court also clarified that under Pathfinder, the psychological injuries do not need to be immediately apparent, only the emotional shock needs to be immediately apparent.

The Court also elaborated upon the fact that the petitioner was not immediately aware that she had struck the victim with the bus, finding the facts to be comparable with Pathfinder.  The Court found that the claimant in Pathfinder did not directly witness the traumatic event, where the claimant did not see her coworker hand get caught in the press as it happened, but observed it immediately after, responding to her injured coworker’s cries for help.  Similarly, the Court found that the petitioner’ witnessing the aftermath of the collision and the injuries of the victim were sufficient for a ruling that her shock was traceable to a traumatic event that occurred at a definite time and place.

A dissent by Justice Turner stated that General Motors had explicitly required that a claimant’s psychological injury be immediately apparent following the shocking event and that the majority’s rejection of General Motors’ interpretation of Pathfinder was unwarranted.  Justice Turner noted that the petitioner had been given a referral to seek psychological treatment by her supervisor on the day of the accident and that she declined to seek treatment until more than two months after the incident, by which time she had been terminated.

Bottom Line:          In this case the First District Appellate Court has re-examined the standard for compensability of the so called “mental-mental” claims and found that  a claimant need not directly witness a traumatic event if the effects and aftermath of the event are significant enough to cause them sudden, severe emotional shock.  Furthermore, the requirement established in General Motors that the shock result in “immediately apparent” psychic injury may no longer be applicable in claims involving alleged psychological injuries that arise from a single traumatic event.  A claim can be compensable if the psychological injury is not evident for a significant period of time after the claimant experienced the severe and shocking event. 

*This article was researched and written by Attorney Michael Bantz from the Champaign office of Inman & Fitzgibbons.   He can be reached at mbantz@inmanfitzgibbons.com

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