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In a stunning reversal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has reassessed its earlier decision in Davis v. WCAB (Swarthmore Borough), as well as Erie Bolt Corp. v. WCAB (Elderkin), and may have even resurrected the Commonwealth Court’s decision in Whiteside v. WCAB (Unisys Corp.), dealing with physical injuries caused by a psychiatric or mental stimulus at work. In Panyko v. WCAB (U.S. Airways), decided Dec. 28, Justice Russell M. Nigro opined that an employee suffering from a heart attack after a routine, nondisciplinary meeting with the employer’s attendance manager was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. In rendering this opinion, the Supreme Court held that its holding in Davis was to be narrowly read so as not to require a claimant to meet the restrictive abnormal working condition test in situations where he suffers a purely physical injury such as a heart attack. Instead, the court held that the claimant’s burden of proof was to show that he suffered from such an injury, and “the injury arose in the course of employment and was related thereto.” Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that its holding in Davis only “stands for the proposition that where a claimant suffers a psychic injury with attendant physical symptoms, the claimant must meet the abnormal working relations test.” The court also defined “purely physical injuries” as objectively verifiable injuries that can ordinarily be traced “to an identifiable course.” They cited examples of “purely physical injuries” as heart attacks, angina or colitis. In a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas G. Saylor opined that the 1972 amendments to the state Workers’ Compensation Act were intended to “abolish a series of complex doctrines [under the accident test] that had required claimants to demonstrate a close association between heart attacks and specific work conditions.” In a stinging dissenting opinion, Justice Sandra Schultz Newman opined that the majority’s decision “has expanded the meaning of ‘work-related injury’ to the point that it has, as a judicial body, converted workers’ compensation coverage into general group life and health insurance.” She said the court’s decision eliminates the crucial element of causation, including that mandate that injuries must be shown to be caused as a result of the premises or by the operation of the employer’s business. In fact, Newman opined that the court’s holding “has blurred the distinction between a work-related heart attack and a heart attack that occurs at work.” Given the facts in the Panyko case, Newman now believes it is possible for individuals to receive workers’ compensation benefits for disabilities caused through termination of employment, promotion of an employee, reassigning an employee, giving a performance evaluation or a single incident of egregious supervisory behavior that ignores the fact that the workplace is a microcosm of society and not a shelter from rude behavior, obscene language, incivility or stress. Instead, Newman believes that a better and fairer approach for the establishment of a compensable heart attack is to require the claimant to show that there is a greater degree of emotional stress in his job activity than that experienced by his or her peers, the general working public or his work environment. It should be noted that in Panyko the employer chose not to present any medical evidence to rebut the opinions of the claimant’s expert witness that the meeting with the attendance manager directly contributed to the claimant’s heart attack. Accordingly, it remains to be seen what the result would have been if instead of relying solely on the standard at the time (for example, that the claimant had to prove an abnormal working condition) the employer presented conflicting medical evidence on the issue of causation. Nevertheless, this decision should raise some serious concerns for employers and their carriers faced with a situation where baby boomers, with all their attendant health care issues, now make up a significant portion of the labor force. Be prepared to see this issue frequently revisited based upon a “the totality of circumstances” test since it seems folly to think or even expect that employers will be walking on egg shells in fear that a routine employment situation will necessarily result in a compensable claim.

Daniel V. DiLoretto practices in the workers’ compensation law practice area with Harvey Pennington in Philadelphia. He has developed extensive experience in the defense of workers’ compensation litigation, as well as related employment issues such as the Americans with Disabilities Act , and the Family and Medical Leave Act. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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