Psychological injuries without physical injuries are not compensable

published in McAfee & Taft EmployerLINC | January 15, 2013

By Charlie Plumb

In some cases, employees who have suffered an emotional or psychological injury in the course of their job may seek benefits under Oklahoma’s Workers’ Compensation Act. However, a recent Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals decision reinforces the fact that psychological or emotional claims are only successful when linked to a compensable physical injury.

Helm’s psychological injury

worker-depressionMark Helm had worked for the Norman Fire Department for 15 years. As a firefighter, Helm had “been through some pretty horrific accidents and deaths,” but the August 28, 2005, emergency run really affected him. Helm responded to a call where two young boys were trapped in the trunk of a car for several hours during the heat of the summer. Helm treated the boys, who were transported by ambulance and later died at the hospital.

Helm had young children himself, including a son the same age as one of the boys and another son who shared one of the boys’ names. Helm’s life was turned upside down. His alcohol intake increased, he became depressed, had difficulty working, and eventually divorced.

Helm suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. According to his doctor, his PTSD and depression resulted from the August 28, 2005, emergency run. Helm filed a workers’ compensation claim against the City of Norman for his PTSD and depression. His doctor’s report and testimony concluded that Helm’s PTSD altered chemicals and caused chemical changes in his brain and body. According to Helm’s doctor and the Workers’ Compensation Court, those changes amounted to a “physical injury to the brain.”

There must be a physical injury

In City of Norman v. Helm, 2012 OK CIV APP 107, the City of Norman appealed the Workers’ Compensation Court’s findings to Oklahoma’s Court of Civil Appeals. The City did not contest the fact that Helm suffered from PTSD and depression, and it did not challenge that those conditions resulted from Helm’s August 28, 2005, emergency run. Instead, the City of Norman pointed out that Helm’s psychological and emotional conditions were not compensable under Oklahoma law because they were only psychological injuries. The City was right.

Under 85 OKLA. STAT. § 308(13)(f), Oklahoma’s Workers’ Compensation Act limits recovery for mental injuries as follows: “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. Oklahoma’s Court of Appeals also pointed to a 1990 decision, where a prison employee was taken hostage during a riot and suffered severe emotional consequences, including depression and PTSD. In that case, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court denied compensability because the prison guard did not sustain any physical injury along with his mental disorders. Based upon the statutory definition and the earlier Supreme Court decision, the Court of Appeals agreed with the City of Norman and found Helm’s injuries were not compensable, inasmuch as they were purely mental in nature.

As our medical and diagnostic skills regarding psychological conditions advance, Oklahoma employers will doubtless face more claims for job-related psychological injuries in the future. For the time being, because of the statutory definition and this recent Court of Appeals case, mental injuries without an associated physical injury are not covered by Oklahoma’s Workers’ Compensation Act.