Workers who have suffered post-traumatic stress, anxiety or a mental injury at work may be entitled to the protections afforded by the Workers’ Compensation Law. Oftentimes, workers feel emotionally stressed from doing their job and we get many questions from people asking if they can file a workers compensation claim. It is important to note that there are different types of emotional stress claims that a worker can make. In some cases, workers suffer a physical injury and develop a psychiatric condition as a consequence of the constant pain or inability to work or provide for their family. In other cases, workers do not suffer a physical injury but experience a specific incident at work that led to a psychiatric condition or there are cases where a worker suffers a psychiatric condition as a result of an ongoing stressful situation at work. The last scenario can occur when someone believes they are over worked or have a boss that harasses them. The criteria for establishing a case without suffering a physical injury are essentially the same. In a recent case, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court disallowed a claim, but the Court explained the requirements that must be met to have a successful claim.
The Court made clear that the basic rule in establishing a psychiatric claim is that the claimant must show that the stress that caused the mental injury was greater than that which a similarly situated worker experiences in the normal work environment.
In the case before the Court, the worker was employed for 29 years as a manager at a 24-hour convenience store. A customer was using offensive language while talking on their cell phone in the store. The claimant asked the customer to stop using the offensive language. The customer refused and was asked to leave the store by the claimant. The customer became abusive and threatened the claimant with physical harm. The customer eventually left the store but returned soon after. An off-duty security guard who was also a customer, convinced the abusive customer to leave the store. The abusive customer was later apprehended by the police. The claimant finished her shift but stopped working a few days later and filed a workers’ compensation claim.
After hearing all the testimony and reviewing the evidence, a Workers’ Compensation Law Judge established the case for post traumatic stress with anxiety/depression. The insurance company appealed the decision, and a Board Panel reversed the Law Judge’s decision and disallowed the claim. The Board Panel believed that the claimant did not suffer stress greater than any other similarly situated worker in a comparable work environment. The claimant appealed the decision, and the Court affirmed the decision.
In agreeing with the Board Panel, the Court noted that the situation was not different than what one would expect when working in a 24-hour convenience store. The claimant acknowledged that in the past, she had been faced with difficult customers and has had to ask customers to leave the store. The claimant testified that this situation was different than past situations because the customer threatened her, and she was in fear of her life. The employer testified that these situations were not uncommon, and that the claimant had been specifically trained to deal with them. The Court thought it was significant that the abusive customer did not actually assault the claimant and did not have a gun or a weapon.
Based upon this decision and other similar cases, it is clear that in order to have a successful claim for a solely psychiatric condition, the worker must prove that the cause of their stress was greater than that of a worker in a comparable work environment. The type of stress can not be considered “normal” business stress. The question that arises from this decision is: what is considered “normal” stress in a particular workplace? Since each case is so fact specific, it is important that workers consult with an attorney to review the relevant case law and the specific facts of their situation.
Written by Vincent Rossillo, Esq.