HARRISBURG - A woman who was assaulted and forced to unlock a check cashing
business' doors and safe, then tied up as the robber took the cash, will have her denied Workers' Compensation claim reconsidered by the Appeal Board, according to an order issued Friday by a seven-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.
Pamela Murphy originally claimed that the physical injuries from the robbery in June 2010 caused severe mental distress that made her unable to return to work. The Workers' Compensation Appeal Board ruled that the physical injuries were not severe enough, and that the robbery was not an abnormal work condition that would qualify for compensation.
In the opinion vacating the denial, Judge Renee Cohn Jubilerer agrees in regard to the severity of the injuries, but directs the appeal board to consider the standard of abnormal working conditions through the lens of another case involving a state trooper.
According to court documents, Murphy has worked for Ace Check Cashing, Inc., in Levittown since February 1998, most recently as general manager. She testified before a Workers' Compensation judge that on June 19, 2010, Murphy and her husband arrived at the main office and check cashing store at around 8 a.m.
Murphy parked next to the dumpster, which was her normal parking spot. When her husband opened the passenger-side door, a man was there with a gun pointed at the husband’s face. The gunman had jumped out of the dumpster, Murphy said, and told them it did not have to be a murder but it would be if they didn’t do what he told them.
The gunman handcuffed Murphy's husband with his hands behind his back, pushed him into the backseat of the car, and tied his legs together. Taking Murphy's keys from where they had fallen in the car, the gunman told her he wanted the alarms to the office. They walked to the office, where Murphy opened the door, and turned off the alarm with her code.
After telling Muprhy there was a second man waiting in the dumpster who would kill her husband, the robber told her to take him to the vault. He forced Murphy to go each room and safe, unlocking doors and turning off various alarms throughout the office as they went. Murphy said she could not activate her panic button and was not within reach of a silent alarm. The gunman then took Murphy upstairs, threw her on the ground and hog-tied her.
Throughout the robbery, Murphy testified, the gunman held her very tightly with the gun to her back and would squeeze her tightly as they moved through the office to ensure she would not get away.
Several minutes after he left, Murphy managed to free a hand and reach her cell phone in her pocket. She called 911 and screamed that she had been robbed and did not know if her husband had been killed. The operator told Murphy that the police were at the front of the store and to let them inside. She responded that she was tied up and could not get out.
Murphy then began crawling and ultimately stood up, all while on the phone with the operator. With the rope still around her, she tried to run but was stopped by police officers. Finally, her husband got out of the car, and the police let them reunite. Murphy then called the company president and informed her of the robbery. She began experiencing chest pains, could not breathe or speak, and was taken to the hospital by ambulance for treatment.
According to her testimony, Murphy sought treatment from her family physician two days later for injuries to her back and shoulders and saw a psychiatrist to receive medications for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
She stated that she continues having nightmares, panic attacks three or four times per week and has difficulty concentrating. Murphy also said she is too afraid to return to the office and worries that the gunman will find her at home.
Her stress was compounded by the fact that her son-in-law was killed six years earlier while working as a courier for the same business.
Ace Check Cashing presented testimony from their own physician who analyzed Murphy's MRIs and determined her back problems were consistent with the progression of an advanced degenerative disc disease and not from the robbery.
Her employer did not dispute Murphy's psychological injuries, but testified that employees were given security training, personal panic codes and directed to use a dummy safe in the event of a robbery.
The Workers' Compensation judge and appeals board both denied Murphy's claim, saying that the physical injuries were not severe enough. They accepted that she suffered from PTSD, but the security measures and training indicated that robberies were not an abnormal working condition.
The Commonwealth Court panel upheld the opinion regarding the physical injuries, but brought into consideration the circumstances surrounding Payes v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board. In that case, a state trooper was initially awarded compensation following an incident where he struck and killed a pedestrian who had run in front of his patrol car while he was travelling to his barracks to begin his shift.
He claimed PTSD from the incident, and the Workers' Compensation judge found that although troopers generally are exposed to vehicle accidents, mayhem, bodily injuries, death, murder, and violent acts in the normal course of their duties, it is unusual that a mentally disturbed individual runs in front of a trooper’s vehicle while he is operating the vehicle, for no apparent reason. The specific details of the incident prompted the award, which was reversed by the appeals board but upheld by the state supreme court.
The Commonwealth Court has ordered the appeals board to re-examine the case through the same lens. Although it is generally expected that a check cashing business would be the target of theft, it is unusual for an employee to be hog-tied and have her husband threatened with death in the event of a robbery.