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Appeals court lowers burden for claimants with stress

A highway department employee who worked at the scene of hundreds of catastrophic automobile accidents did not have to compare her work-related stress to that of similarly-situated employees to receive benefits for her resulting mental injury, according to the Missouri Court of Appeals.

The Eastern District found that the 2005 amendments to workers’ compensation law requiring strict construction meant the abrogation of case law that required claimants suffering from work-related mental injuries to present evidence of work stress suffered by similarly-situated employees and to prove that the stress they suffered was extraordinary and unusual as compared to the other employees.

Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District, St. Louis

Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District, St. Louis

“Today, however, under the strict construction mandate of the amended section 287.800 – which the parties agree applies here – section 287.120.8 must no longer be interpreted to require evidence of the stress encountered by similarly-situated employees, since that requirement is not expressed by the statute’s plain and unambiguous terms,” Judge James M. Dowd wrote.

“One positive thing this decision does for people with dangerous occupations such as police officers and ambulance workers is to give them the opportunity to have access to treatment and benefits,” said Jeffrey Ray Swaney, who represented Linda Mantia, the claimant.

“The decision creates an even playing field. The standard was already extraordinary and unusual,” said Swaney, a St. Louis attorney with the Swaney Law Firm.

Jeffrey Wells Wright, a St. Louis attorney with Leahy, Wright & Associates, represented the Missouri Department of Transportation. He was not available for comment.

Mental stress

Mantia worked for the Missouri Department of Transportation for more than 20 years providing traffic control and assistance for highway accidents. She was assigned to the most serious accidents, often involving catastrophic injury, dismemberment and death.

She began to suffer emotional and psychological symptoms and filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits for mental disabilities in 2008. The medical experts for both sides agreed that she suffered work-related depression and that she suffered permanent partial disability with her experiences at accident scenes as the prevailing cause.

The administrative law judge denied Mantia’s claim, however, finding that she failed to prove that she suffered extraordinary and unusual stress when compared to similarly situated employees. The Labor and Industrial Relations Commission reversed and awarded her benefits, holding that due to the 2005 amendments, claimants did not need to prove the extraordinary and unusual nature of the stress by comparing it to that suffered by similar employees.

On appeal, the department argued that the court’s 1999 holding in Williams v. Depaul Health Center still applied. To prove a work-related stress claim under Williams, the claimant must show evidence of work-related stress experienced by similarly situated workers and prove that the claimant’s stress was extraordinary and unusual compared to those employees.

Mental injuries are categorized as occupational injuries under Missouri law. Section 287.120.8 states that “Mental injury resulting from work-related stress does not arise out of and in the course of the employment, unless it is demonstrated that the stress is work related and was extraordinary and unusual. The amount of work stress shall be measured by objective standards and actual events.”

The Eastern District said that under strict construction, no language in the statute requires the claimant to compare their stress to that of similar employees.

Occupational disease

Judge Dowd wrote that competent and substantial evidence supported the commission’s finding that Mantia suffered an occupational disease arising from mental injury. The Eastern District cited medical expert testimony that she developed depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder from witnessing the aftermath of so many serious accidents.

Mantia testified that she had accidentally kicked the head of a decapitated accident victim, listened to the screams of a child burning to death, observed the crushed skull of a co-worker, smelled burning flesh and witnessed a woman commit suicide by jumping from a highway bridge. Her symptoms included nightmares, panic attacks, mood swings, insomnia and social withdrawal.

“Needless to say, witnessing such events placed stresses on Mantia more extreme than most employees will ever experience. We cannot reasonably doubt that such experiences were extraordinary and unusual… Each stress-inciting incident was serious and violent, and many involved horribly painful deaths, a few following prolonged human suffering which Mantia witnessed,” Dowd wrote.

Although the department also argued that her testimony was inherently subjective, the court disagreed.

“Mantia proved the stress objectively by connecting it to the undeniable trauma of actual severe automobile accidents and other violent scenes of death, destruction and mayhem,” the Eastern District concluded. The appellate court affirmed the award of 50 percent permanent partial disability and for future medical care.

Swaney, Mantia’s attorney, said the old law allowed insurance companies to deny benefits cases brought by emergency workers with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental injuries.

“Do we really want to abandon these people who serve and protect us in this capacity?” he said.

The case is Mantia v. Missouri Department of Transportation, ED103016.

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