Is Stress a Valid Workers’ Comp Claim

avatar Steve Schmutz

10/04/12  General  23 comment(s) 

Is Stress a Valid Workers’ Comp Claim

 

It’s hard to imagine a job without at least some stress. I’ve tried to think of people I know who have pretty laid-back jobs, and even those jobs have their stressful moments.

Take my friend Jared, for example. He only works about four hours a day, so you would think he would have a pretty stress-free job, right? Except for the fact that he spends those four hours driving middle school students in a non-air-conditioned bus. Ya, that’s stressful – just thinking about it is stressful.

The people at the DMV don’t seem too stressed (they don’t really seem to care about anything), so maybe that’s one job that’s not so bad.

For the rest of us, stress is part of life, that’s all there is to it. It’s true that some people handle stress better than others, and it’s also true that some people have more stressful lives/jobs than others. But we all experience stress, whether from work, relationships, health, finances, or any number of sources.

So how do we know if our jobs created the stress?

In the Course of Employment?

Workers’ compensation is, in short, a system whereby employees receive compensation, including medical expenses, for work-related injuries or illnesses.  In it’s definition, Merriam-Webster uses the phrase, “occurring in the course of employment.”

Therein lies the problem. 

Because we’re all different, and situations vary so widely, it’s hard to objectively determine if a person’s stress was caused “in the course of employment.”

Case Denied

Take the New Jersey case Knight v. Audubon Savings Bank, for example. Jeanne Knight worked at the bank for nine years, starting as a teller and later being promoted to a mortgage processor. She filed a claim stating that her supervisor “screamed at her, imposed an excessively burdensome workload upon her, and, generally, made her job so stressful that it resulted in a compensable psychiatric claim.”

The workers compensation judge ruled against Knight. That ruling was later upheld by the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, citing a lack of “credible evidence” that Knight’s condition was “materially caused” from her position at the bank.

Case Upheld

In another New Jersey case, Coleman v. Andrew Jergens Company, Christina Coleman suffered a heart condition caused by the stress she suffered because she couldn’t balance the books for her employer. The court ruled in Coleman’s favor, stating, “Under the evidence, it is more probable that a person of petitioner's age, emotional fears and hypertension would suffer such stresses and strains” due to her work conditions.

Hmmm… Not sure I agree with the court on that one, especially considering the fact that Coleman had a pre-existing heart condition.

How To Tell?

So how can you tell if an employee’s job is the cause of their problems? Based on these two examples, it appears to be a judgment call. There are no set-in-stone guidelines, no conclusive tests, no irrefutable formulas – it’s essentially up to the judge, based of course on what evidence there is, and how that evidence is presented.

Speaking of Presenting Evidence

Now, this is not a knock on all attorneys, believe me. Both my older brothers are attorneys and they’re actually really good guys. However, when researching this article I must have come across hundreds of attorney websites offering to help “victims” receive their due compensation.

Here’s what one site has on its home page: “Have you needed therapy, counseling, medications or other psychological or medical treatment because of work-related stress?” Then it goes on to tell the reader why they should call for a free evaluation with an attorney, and all but promises them a “win” for their claim.

It’s California’s Fault

That’s not entirely true, of course, but this whole stress-and-workers-comp thing started in California in the 1980s. Under current California law, a psychiatric claim may be compensable if the following six conditions are met:

1)              Employment must be six months or longer.

2)              Employee must have a listed psychiatric condition under CA labor code.

3)              Employee must prove that the actual events of his/her employment are the predominant cause of the condition, i.e. 51 percent or more.

4)              Condition may not be the result of “good faith” personnel actions, such as criticizing the employee’s work or attendance, changing work assignments, or resulting from raises or promotions (or the lack thereof).

5)              Condition may not be the result of litigation, such as the denial of a claim.

6)              A stress claim may not be filed after employee’s termination or notice of termination.

It’s a Start

Well, it’s a start. Those six conditions at least give us some structure in determining the validity of stress related injuries. Cases will continue to come forward, judgments will continue to be offered, and employers and employees will continue to wrestle with this issue for a long time to come.  

Let’s face it, this is a tough one. If an employee truly is mentally injured, his or her claim should be accepted and the worker should be duly compensated. On the other hand, if the employee’s stress is due to “life”, the employer should not be required to pick up the burden of compensation.

Wow, just writing this article has stressed me out. I need a Diet Coke. Then maybe I’ll see if the DMV is hiring.


Comments 23

01/06/13  SIPUN
Too often, we see companies forget to take care of the workers whose efforts and hard work keep things running. It isn’t fair when they endure an injury at the workplace and aren’t properly compensated. Our firm isdedicated to protecting your rights .

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Right-wing garbage... Your name should be Steve Putz

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I liked the bank employee comments I agree that the employer causes the stress specially when your boss and organization does not provide support

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