Court restores disability benefits for former Duquesne Light worker who claimed bomb threats caused a panic disorder and PTSD

By Carrie Salls | Jan 29, 2018

HARRISBURG – The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has reversed a Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) decision that terminated a former Duquesne Light Co. employee’s medical benefits related to treatment of panic disorder - but also upheld termination of her benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder symptoms.

According to the Jan. 24 Commonwealth Court opinion, authored by Judge Robert Simpson, claimant Kimberly M. Vasser-Watts “developed symptoms including hair loss and sleeplessness” after two bomb threats occurred in the building she worked in at Duquesne Light as a customer service operator.

Following the bomb threats, “(Vasser-Watts) was afraid to work in the building where the bomb threats occurred,” the Commonwealth Court opinion said. “Claimant later returned to work for employer in a janitorial position in a different building. However, she left that job because of physical problems unrelated to the 1996 bomb threats.”

Vasser-Watts sought Workers’ Compensation medical benefits in December 1997. In 1999, a Workers’ Compensation judge agreed that Vasser-Watts was suffering from PTSD, major depressive disorder and panic disorder as a result of the Duquesne Light bomb threats. 

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The WCAB upheld the judge’s decision to grant medical benefits.

However, according to the Commonwealth Court opinion, “in August 2011, employer filed a termination petition, alleging claimant fully recovered from her work-related injuries.”

To back up its argument that Vasser-Watts had recovered, Duquesne Light had psychiatrist Stuart S. Burstein testify on its behalf after he examined the claimant in 2011.

In his testimony, Burstein said Vasser-Watts “no longer exhibited any PTSD symptoms,” the Commonwealth Court opinion said. Burstein also testified that Vasser-Watts still had a mild form of major depression, but he attributed that condition to “chronic pain claimant experienced as a result of degenerative disc disease, arthritis and headaches,” rather than to her experiences as a Duquesne Light employee.

In connection with the panic disorder diagnosis, the court said Burstein testified to the Workers’ Compensation judge that “panic disorder does not result from any specific incident.” According to Burstein’s expert opinion, Vasser-Watts “suffered from a pre-existing mitral valve prolapse, diagnosed in the 1980s, that might have created palpitations mimicking panic disorder.”

Although the WCAB initially sent the matter back to the judge “with a directive that the WCJ address the correct established work injury, panic disorder,” the Commonwealth Court opinion said the judge “again granted the termination petition” based on the testimony of Burstein, “who found no panic disorder in his 2011 examination of claimant.”

“(Vasser-Watts) again appealed to the board, renewing her argument that the opinion of employer’s expert was valueless,” the Commonwealth Court said. This time, the WCAB upheld the workers’ compensation judge’s ruling.

In its opinion, the Commonwealth Court disagreed with the judge and WCAB’s position on Vasser-Watts’ panic disorder.

“A fair reading of (Burstein’s testimony) regarding claimant’s panic disorder reflects that employer’s expert opined claimant never had a panic disorder, or if she did, it was never related to her work injury,” the Commonwealth Court said. “That opinion was contrary to the established law and facts of this case.”

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Duquesne Light Company Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Workers' Compensation Appeal Board

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