by Bernard D. Nomberg, Partner, The Nomberg Law Firm
Unfortunately for Warren Beatty and the Oscars, the wrong title was announced for Best Picture during the 89th Academy Awards. There’s no doubt the situation was uncomfortable for the producer of La La Land, embarrassing for Warren Beatty and downright awkward for viewers at home. Maybe everyone will take the mistake at face value, but it’s possible there may be some psychological and emotional trauma as a result of the mix-up. Hopefully everyone involved can laugh it off. (Could this lead to litigation? We will see. We do know the PWC accountants responsible for the blunder will no longer work future ceremonies.) But what happens when there is an incident in the workplace that may result in psychological or emotional effects later on?
It is universally understood that workers’ compensation covers physical injuries sustained during the course of employment. However, whether workers’ compensation covers psychological injuries can be a bit more complex. This is based in large part on the fact that mental injuries are not as easily identifiable by medical professionals as a broken bone or severe laceration. Psychological claims often cannot be measured through physical findings. Instead, an employee may present subjective mental symptoms.
An employee’s past character can be determinative of the likelihood that the mental claims will be treated as valid. An employee who has a history of slacking off or compulsively lying under pressure may face more criticism for their mental health claims than those claims of a model employee. Many claims based on mental injuries are guided by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The claim will be investigated and compared to the manual to determine whether a mental injury is actually present.
No acting here. The crowd’s expression says it all.
It’s important to note the different types of mental injuries that can occur in workers’ compensation: physical-mental and mental-mental. Where an employee is physically injured and then develops a mental injury as a result of the physical trauma, they are considered to have physical-mental claim. However, to be compensable, the mental injury must be linked to a physical injury that also occurred during the on the job accident. The employee may develop anxiety or depression which only presented due to the physical injury. PTSD is another common physical-mental claim asserted for workers’ compensation benefits.
In contrast, a mental-mental injury, the injury arises from a mental stressor such as fear, anxiety, or stress. One example would be where an employee witnesses another employee killed (think police officers, fire fighters and first responders). Many states have limited or barred workers’ compensation claims where there was no corresponding physical injury.
The Alabama courts have set a standard in psychological injury cases called the “contributing cause standard”. Ex parte Vongsouvanh, 795 So.2d 625 (Ala. 2000); CVS Corporation, Inc. v. Frances Smith, 981 So.2d 1128 (Ala. Civ. App. 2007). This standard states that the physical injury does not have to be the sole cause of the injury and the employee need only show that the physical injury was a factor in causing the mental anguish or injury.
What if you have a pre-existing mental or psychological condition? A pre-existing mental condition does not affect the ability to receive medical treatment or compensation as long as the physical injury causes the mental illness to start, become worse or reactivate. See Taylor v. Mobile Pulley and Machinery Works, 714 So. 2d 300 (Ala. Civ. App. 1997). Thus, as long as the mental anguish at least partially stems from the physical injury then the claim for compensation is valid.
This area of the law can be quite confusing and often hotly contested by the employer and its workers’ compensation company. The bottom line here is there must be a physical injury tied to the mental injury for it to be compensable.
Will Warren Beatty or the Producer of La-La Land get workers’ compensation benefits for the Oscar mishap? No. But a psychological or mental injury may be compensable for an employee claiming workers’ compensation benefits due to a physical injury sustained in an on the job accident.
Bernard D. Nomberg has practiced workers’ compensation law in Alabama for more than 20 years. Bernard has earned an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell’s peer-review rating. He has been selected a Super Lawyer by Super Lawyers Magazine as well as a Top Rated Attorney by B-Metro Magazine.