Last month, the Supreme Court of Ohio limited psychological (and psychiatric) allowances in workers’ compensation claims to mental conditions that are directly caused by the claimant’s underlying physical injury, as opposed to such conditions that arose merely contemporaneously with the injury.  While Ohio does not recognize so-called “mental-mental” claims (mental stimulus causes mental injury), many courts, and certainly the Ohio Industrial Commission, have long allowed psychological conditions that arose contemporaneously in time with the physical injury — either based on trauma associated with the mechanism of injury itself, or based on a general “woe-is-me” situation a claimant may find herself in as a result of her workers’ compensation claim and its supposed general affect on her life.

In Armstrong v. John R. Jurgensen Co., the Supreme Court dealt with the former situation.  Shaun Armstrong was involved in a motor vehicle accident while operating a dump truck within the course of his employment with the John R. Jorgensen Company.  While stopped at a yield sign to a highway on ramp, Armstrong observed a vehicle approaching him from behind at a high rate of speed.  Armstrong anticipated a collision which he feared would cause him serious injury. The speeding vehicle indeed struck the dump truck from behind, coming to rest beneath Armstrong’s one-ton vehicle.  After the impact, Armstrong, unaware of the extent of his own injuries, observed that the driver of the other vehicle was bleeding and not moving. Afraid that the vehicles would catch fire, and suspecting that the other driver was dead, Armstrong called emergency personnel.  After being transported to emergency facilities and treated for his own physical injuries, Armstrong became distressed to learn that the other driver had died.

Armstrong filed a workers’ compensation claim that was allowed for his physical injuries of cervical, thoracic and lumbar strains.  Armstrong then filed a claim for an additional allowance of “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD), which was additionally allowed through the Ohio Industrial Commission’s administrative process, but which was subsequently disallowed on appeal by the trial court and the Second District Court of Appeals.  It was agreed by all parties that Armstrong suffered from PTSD.  The question presented to the Ohio Supreme Court, however, was whether Armstrong’s PTSD qualified as a compensable injury. The employer, Jurgensen, maintained that Ohio law required a direct and proximate casual relationship between the physical injury and the mental condition.  Armstrong, however, maintained that Ohio courts have always allowed compensation for mental conditions that are sustained contemporaneously with the physical injury regardless of whether a direct casual relationship existed between the two. 

The Supreme Court found that the language of R.C. 4123.01(C)(1), which states that in order to be compensable a psychological condition must have “arisen from” an injury, does indeed contemplate a casual connection between the psychological condition and the injured worker’s physical injury.  The Supreme Court agreed with the Second District Court of Appeals in their determination that “[t]o be compensable, a psychiatric condition must have been started from and therefore result from a physical injury or occupational disease the claimant suffered.”  Armstrong suffered compensable physical injuries, and the Supreme Court agreed that his PTSD arose contemporaneously as a result of the accident. But that is not enough.  The Supreme Court determined that “…[f]or Armstrong’s PTSD to qualify as a compensable injury under R.C. 4123.01(C)(1), … more is required; he must establish that his PTSD was casually related to his compensable injuries and not simply to his involvement in the accident.”

Some may argue that the Armstrong case goes too far, as did Justices Pfeifer and O’Neill in dissent (“Where does today’s decision leave employees who [legitimately] suffer from post- traumatic stress disorder [as a result of being]…haunted by the trauma of the original event?”).  If nothing else, however, the Armstrong decision should, with proper presentation before the Industrial Commission, limit the garden variety “woe-is-me” additional psychological allowances.  These are currently routinely granted by the Commission, and invariably have the effect of reinstating or continuing temporary total compensation where the claimant has just been declared at Maximum Medical Improvement for her physical injuries.