The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that a state trooper who claims he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after hitting and killing a woman with his patrol car is entitled to workers’ compensation disability benefits.
But the court was more deeply split over the standard of review for determining whether an abnormal working condition existed that led to a compensable mental or psychic injury.
The six-justice court—recently appointed Justice Correale F. Stevens did not participate—ruled 5-1 to reverse a Commonwealth Court decision that upheld a Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board’s denial of benefits to former Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Philip Payes.
Writing for the majority in Payes v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, Justice Seamus P. McCaffery said that, in Payes’ case, a “single and comprehensive work-related event constituted an abnormal working condition as a matter of law.”
But the more controversial aspect of McCaffery’s opinion was his characterization of a court’s standard of review regarding the existence of a compensable mental or psychic injury as “a mixed question of law and fact.”
McCaffery explained in a footnote that Pennsylvania courts have long held that the existence of an abnormal working condition was a mixed question of law and fact.
“Accordingly, we hold that the Commonwealth Court erred by not accepting the well-supported facts found by the WCJ establishing the existence of an extraordinarily unusual and distressing single work-related event experienced by appellant, resulting in his disabling mental condition, where such single and comprehensive work-related event constituted an abnormal working condition as a matter of law.”
McCaffery was joined by Justices Thomas G. Saylor, Max Baer and Debra M. Todd.
Justice J. Michael Eakin, however, penned a dissenting opinion arguing that the question of whether factual findings establish that an abnormal working condition was present and led to a compensable mental or psychic injury is a question of law only.
Based on that standard of review, Eakin said, the evidence in Payes’ case did not establish that an abnormal working condition existed, but rather that Payes had an abnormal reaction to normal working conditions.
“It would be gratifying to award benefits here, for the triggering event was unquestionably traumatic, but trauma is not the test for psychic injury,” Eakin said. “In my opinion, considering the limited evidence and relevant case law, the Commonwealth Court committed no error when it concluded the injury did not result from abnormal working conditions.”
Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille penned a separate concurring and dissenting opinion, agreeing with the majority that Payes had suffered a compensable mental injury but siding with Eakin’s characterization of the standard of review in mental injury cases.
“Rather than a mixed question of law and fact, ‘we repeatedly have held that the ultimate determination of whether the employee established “abnormal working conditions” is a question of law fully reviewable on appeal,’” Castille said, quoting the Supreme Court’s 2007 opinion in RAG (Cyprus) Emerald Resources v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Hopton).
Like Eakin, Castille found that while the Supreme Court has acknowledged that mental injury cases are highly fact-specific and require reviewing courts to show deference to the workers’ compensation judge’s findings of fact, the question of whether those facts form the basis of an abnormal working condition is one of law.
Unlike Eakin, however, Castille said he believed Payes’ incident constituted a “‘singular extraordinary event’” even for a state trooper, and therefore made his injury compensable.
Still, Castille disagreed with the majority’s finding that the Commonwealth Court had ignored precedent by denying Payes benefits.
“I do not view the Commonwealth Court’s contrary ruling to be a major departure from settled law, and I do not agree with the majority’s overemphatic attempt to paint it as such,” Castille said. “I repeat, this is a close case, and reasonable jurists, such as Justice Eakin, applying the proper standard, may reasonably reach a different result—as the Commonwealth Court did.”
According to court documents, Payes was returning his patrol vehicle to his station when a mentally disturbed woman ran in front of his vehicle.
Payes’ vehicle struck the woman, who was wearing all black, and he stopped his car to provide medical attention, according to court documents. While waiting for an ambulance, he noticed the woman had blood coming from her mouth. Payes checked the woman for a pulse and attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. According to court documents, he also had to stand over her body at one point to wave traffic away from them.
The woman died of her injuries after being taken to a hospital, according to court documents.
The state Police paid the medical expenses related to Payes’ blood exposure, according to court documents, but denied liability when it came to any psychological injuries or earnings losses related to those injuries.
According to court documents, Payes attempted to return to work a little more than a month after the accident. Though he worked for a few days doing paperwork, “he felt he was in no way ready to resume working.”
At a hearing before a workers’ compensation judge, Payes presented testimony from a psychiatrist and a psychologist, who both opined that Payes suffered from PTSD and was not capable of returning to work, according to court documents.
Payes himself said he “never thought [he]‘d be … possibly [the] method of someone’s suicide,” according to court documents.
The state Police, at the same hearing, presented testimony from a state Police commander who told the workers’ compensation judge that state troopers receive training and information on PTSD as cadets and that troopers are also trained to perform first aid, as they routinely respond to motor vehicle accidents, according to court documents.
The commander also disagreed with the characterization that the accident in which Payes was involved was a “suicide by cop” scenario.
The state Police also presented the testimony of a psychiatrist who examined Payes nearly a year after the accident. Though she, too, believed Payes had PTSD, she opined that the accident may have exacerbated a pre-existing condition and that he had since returned to “baseline levels” following the accident.
The WCJ awarded Payes total disability benefits, finding that the mental injury was a result of an abnormal working condition.
On appeal, however, the WCAB sided with the state police, holding that the accident did not constitute an abnormal working condition because of Payes’ “stressful and perilous position.”
The Commonwealth Court agreed, finding that “‘it is not beyond the realm of possibility for an officer to have to take someone’s life.’”
But McCaffery said the court “plainly meant here that a police officer might be called upon to take the life of a suspect during the course of a physical struggle in furtherance of upholding the law and ensuring the peace.”
“Being a potentiality with no relation to what happened in this case, however, it represents a false analogy,” McCaffery said.
Eakin, however, disagreed, reasoning that “confrontations, injuries, blood, death and other frightening events are unfortunate, but necessarily a daily part” of law enforcement officers’ daily work.
“The fact appellant never thought an event ‘like this’ could happen or that ‘he never thought he would be involved in someone’s death’ does not make the event an abnormal working condition,” Eakin said.
Counsel for Payes, Quintes D. Taglioli of Markowitz & Richman in Allentown, Pa., could not be reached for comment.
Counsel for the state Police, James A. Mazzotta of Fried, Kane, Walters, Zuschlag & Grochmal in Pittsburgh, also could not be reached.
(Copies of the 35-page opinion in Payes v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, PICS No. 13-3105, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •