The Pa. Commonwealth Court recently addressed the question of what constitutes an “abnormal working condition” in a workers compensation case that alleged post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In Washington v. WCAB (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania State Police) , 11 A.3d 48 (2011), the injured worker, Washington, was employed as a Field Trooper with the State Police. In addition, he also worked as a member of the Forensic Services Unit (FSU)providing forensic and photographic services. In 1998, he was involved in the investigation of a murder/suicide in which a father set his vehicle on fire burning himself and his eight-month old infant daughter to death. In addition to photographing the vehicle and the bodies at the crime scene, he attended the baby’s autopsy and filed a report of the crime scene via photographs. In 2006, Claimant filed a claim petition in which he alleged that he suffered a work related injury in the nature of PTSD resulting from his work on the case where the baby was burned to death. He alleged that he would cry, that he suffered from nightmares, that he fired a bullet across the side of his chest which required hospitalization, that he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, that he was diagnosed PTSD, and as a result he was no longer able to work.
As Mr. Washington was alleging a “mental/mental” injury (a mental injury resulting from mental stimuli), he had the burden of establishing objective evidence that he suffered a psychological injury and that the injury was more than a subjective reaction to normal working conditions. Pennsylvania Courts have ruled that psychic injury cases are highly fact-sensitive and for actual work conditions to be considered abnormal, they must be considered in the context of the specific employment. The Commonwealth Court has recognized that the job of police officer is one which is inherently highly stressful. Therefore, Washington was still required to demonstrate by objective evidence that his PTSD diagnosis was more than his subjective reaction to normal working conditions in order to recover benefits under the Workers Compensation Act.
The Commonwaelth Court found that the activities performed by Washington in the baby death investigation were normal and routine activities relating to his FSU job duties. The court reasoned that the activities may have been unusual for Claimant to endure as a member of the FSU; however, they did not constitute the requisite abnormal working conditions to support the award of compensation benefits.