On June 4, 2013, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a decision limiting the circumstances under which a psychological condition can be recognized in a workers’ compensation claim. The Court’s decision, Armstrong v. John R. Jurgensen Co., 2013-Ohio-2237, clarified that an injured worker must not only sustain a physical injury for a related psychological condition to be compensable, but that in fact the psychological condition must be caused by the physical injury itself.
In the Armstrong case, the claimant, Shaun Armstrong, was involved in a motor vehicle accident while operating a dump truck for his employer. While stopped on an interstate ramp, Armstrong saw a car approach quickly from behind and rear-end his truck. After Armstrong exited the truck, he noticed that the other driver was not moving, and feared that fluid leaking from the vehicles would catch fire. While at the emergency room, Armstrong learned that the other driver had been fatally injured in the accident.
Armstrong’s workers’ compensation claim was recognized for physical conditions consisting of soft tissue strains. He then filed a motion asking that the claim be additionally allowed for a psychological condition, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The request was denied by the Industrial Commission, and later by the Trial Court. Although it was uncontested that Armstrong did, in fact, have PTSD, the case turned on the cause of that condition. The Trial Court held that the condition was not caused by the soft tissue strains sustained by Armstrong in the accident, but rather by the circumstances of the accident itself, and particularly Armstrong’s observation of the other driver’s fatal injury, and his concern that the vehicles might catch fire.
After the Court of Appeals upheld the Trial Court’s ruling, Armstrong appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. Armstrong argued that, although the statue requires that a psychological condition must have “arisen from” an injury in order to be compensable, it was sufficient for the condition to have arisen at the same time as the injury, even if the injury itself did not specifically cause the psychological condition.
In its decision, the Supreme Court disagreed. The Court noted prior decisions which had denied compensation for psychological conditions without an accompanying injury, such as in the case of a robbery where the employee was not physically injured. Based upon the specific wording of the statute, the Court ruled that in order for a condition such as PTSD to be compensable, the mere fact that an employee experienced a physical injury at the same time is not sufficient. Instead, the Court reasoned, an employee such as Armstrong “must establish that his PTSD was causally related to his compensable physical injuries and not simply to his involvement in the accident.” Two Justices dissented.
This case offers welcome clarification for Ohio employers. In the past, many involved in the workers’ compensation system have contended that, so long as a claimant can establish some physical injury, even as minor as a mere scratch or contusion, a psychological condition relating to the circumstances of the accident would likewise be compensable. Based upon the Armstrong decision, however, conditions like PTSD, which by definition develops as result of experiencing a traumatic event, will rarely be compensable in an Ohio workers’ compensation claim.