Q&A with Charlie Plumb
Workers' comp laws differ
for psychological injuries
Q: Oklahoma's workers' compensation system allows employees of insured employers to seek compensation for certain injuries or occupational diseases suffered while on the job. Are nonphysical injuries included?
A: The Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Act restricts an employee's ability to obtain benefits for nonphysical injuries, such as depression, extreme anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Q: Under what circumstances would psychological and emotional claims qualify for workers' compensation benefits?
A: According to the act, a 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.” If an employee suffers an emotional injury — for example, depression — as a result of suffering an accompanying physical injury, then the courts would consider compensation for both claims.
Q: Has this been tested in the courts recently?
A: Yes. Earlier this month, in city of Norman v. Helm, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals overturned a Workers' Compensation Court's ruling that a firefighter was entitled to benefits for emotional and psychological injuries — namely, PTSD and depression — he sustained after responding to a particularly horrific emergency scene. According to the firefighter's doctor and the Workers' Compensation Court, the PTSD caused chemical changes in the man's brain and body, and those changes amounted to “physical injury to the brain.”
The city of Norman appealed. While not contesting the fact that the injured employee suffered from PTSD and depression, they did argue that the firefighter's condition was not compensable under Oklahoma law because they were only psychological injuries. Based on the statutory definition and a previous Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling on a case with similar facts, the appeals court agreed and ruled in the city's favor.
PAULA BURKES, BUSINESS WRITER