The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently overturned a ruling by a lower
appellate court that denied disability benefits to a state trooper who claims he sustained psychological damages after accidentally striking and killing a woman with his police cruiser.
In a case decided late last month, the high court ruled that Commonwealth Court was wrong to affirm a ruling by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board denying disability benefits to Philip Payes, a 12-year veteran of the Pennsylvania State Police who killed a woman who had darted in front of his squad car on Nov. 29, 2006.
Payes initially returned to work following the incident, which involved him giving CPR to the woman while simultaneously diverting traffic around the accident scene, but four days later recurring feelings of anxiety and stress led him to believe he could no longer carry out his job, according to the court record.
Claiming he was severely traumatized by the incident, Payes left work on Jan. 5, 2007, and has yet to return.
The trooper sought workers’ compensation benefits, but the State Police issued two separate denials, one stating that Payes was injured, but not disabled by the incident, and the second saying that the man wasn’t injured in the scope of his employment and was not suffering from post-traumatic stress.
Payes had been driving his patrol car along Interstate 81 on that late November day in 2006 at about 5:45 in the morning on the way to his job at the local barracks when the woman, dressed all in black, darted in front of the police vehicle, the record states.
After striking the woman – it was later determined that she had been suffering from a mental illness – Payes attempted to revive the victim while at the same time diverting incoming traffic around the accident scene.
The woman was soon pronounced dead at the scene.
During a hearing, a workers’ compensation judge determined that Payes had successfully proven a “mental injury arising from a work-related mental stimulus,” the high court’s opinion states.
The judge found that while state troopers may expect to encounter or be involved with violent situations, the particular incident involving Payes was not one normally encountered by police in the course of their duties.
On appeal, however, the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board reversed the judge’s decision, stating that, “we cannot agree that this incident constitutes an abnormal working condition given the nature of [Appellant’s] stressful and perilous profession.”
The Commonwealth Court, a lower-tier appellate body, subsequently agreed with the WCAB, determining Payes’ injury, as a matter of law, did not result from an abnormal working condition.
On appeal to the high court, Payes argued that the Commonwealth Court erred by ignoring the workers’ compensation judge’s factual findings regarding the “singular nature of the event that had triggered the onset of his disabling PTSD,” the Supreme Court’s Oct. 30 opinion notes.
The State Police had argued that troopers are trained and expected to deal with stressful situations, and that Payes merely experienced one such event that fell within his duties as a police officer.
The agency also contended that the concept known as “suicide by cop” is not unheard of, and thus is not considered an abnormal working condition for police officers.
In their ruling, the justices found that the Commonwealth Court erred by not accepting the “well-supported” facts found by the workers’ compensation judge establishing the existence of an “extraordinarily unusual and distressing single work-related event experienced by Appellant, resulting in his disabling mental condition, where such single and comprehensive work-related event constituted an abnormal working condition as a matter of law.”
The high court reversed the Commonwealth Court’s ruling and remanded the matter for reinstatement of the workers’ compensation judge’s decision granting Payes’ claim for benefits.
The majority opinion was written by Justice Seamus McCaffery.
He was joined by Justices Thomas Saylor, Max Baer and Debra Todd.
Justice J. Michael Eakin filed a dissenting opinion in which he wrote that he disagrees with the majority’s finding as “erroneous” the Commonwealth Court’s denial of workers’ compensation benefits based on the psychological injury Payes says he sustained as a result of abnormal working conditions.
The workers’ compensation judge’s factual findings were not disputed, nor reformulated, by the Commonwealth Court, Eakin wrote.
The lower appeals court instead found that the judge’s factual findings were legally insufficient to establish abnormal working conditions.
“Such assessment, which was within the scope of the Commonwealth Court’s review, is a question of law, not of fact or, as the majority holds, a mixed question,” Eakin wrote.
The justice wrote that the determination of whether there were abnormal working conditions is a “reviewable question of law which must be addressed objectively, considering the specific line of employment, not the employee’s subjective reaction to the event or condition.
“Law enforcement officers potentially face life-and-death situations every day. Confrontations, injuries, blood, death, and other frightening events are unfortunate, but necessarily a daily part of their work,” Eakin wrote. “While the specifics of every event they may face obviously cannot be anticipated, the fact there will be such events is certainly foreseeable. One cannot undertake this most honorable profession without that understanding, and it is that understanding that causes us to hold them in such high regard.”
Eakin wrote while it would be “gratifying” to see Payes awarded with disability benefits, because the triggering event was “unquestionably traumatic … trauma is not the test for psychic injury.”
Chief Justice Ronald Castille filed a concurring and dissenting opinion in which he wrote that he viewed the matter as an “exceedingly close case.”
Castille wrote that while he ultimately agrees with the majority’s conclusion, he disagreed with his fellow justices on their “exposition of the applicable standard of review in cases like this one … hence I am in a partially dissenting posture.”
The chief justice stated that he ultimately agrees with the decision to uphold the workers’ compensation judge’s determination that Payes’ injury was caused by an abnormal working condition.
“I do not view the Commonwealth Court’s contrary ruling to be a major departure from settled law, and I do not agree with the Majority’s overemphatic attempt to paint it as such,” Castille wrote. “I repeat, this is a close case, and reasonable jurists, such as Justice Eakin, applying the proper standard, may reasonably reach a different view – as the Commonwealth Court did.”