For the past 100 years, Ohio’s workers’ compensation program has compensated employees who sustain occupational injuries and diseases. It has never compensated psychiatric conditions standing alone. In fact, 30 years ago that position was made part of the very definition of “injury” in R.C. 4123.01(C), which states that “’Injury’ does not include psychiatric conditions except where the claimant’s psychiatric conditions have arisen from an injury or occupational disease sustained by that claimant.”
Just two years ago, in Armstrong v. John R. Jurgensen Co., 2013-Ohio-2237, the Ohio Supreme Court refused to expand the definition of “injury” to include psychiatric conditions not caused by an occupational injury or disease. In that case, Armstrong, who drove a dump truck for the John R. Jurgensen Company, was rear-ended by a car whose driver died in the accident, and Armstrong witnessed the driver bleeding and not moving. Armstrong sustained upper and lower back strains, and later he developed post-traumatic stress disorder. The Industrial Commission approved his claim for that condition, and the company appealed. Armstrong’s expert witness related his PTSD in part to his physical injuries, and if so then it would be compensable; the company’s expert witness testified that Armstrong had developed PTSD only because of his observation of the driver’s injuries and death, and if so then the condition would not be compensable. At trial, the court ruled in favor of the company. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and Armstrong appealed again. The Ohio Supreme Court began its opinion as follows:
In this appeal, we consider whether, for a mental condition to be compensable under the Ohio workers’ compensation system, a compensable physical injury sustained by the claimant must cause the mental condition. We hold that it must.
Now, just two years after the court’s opinion in Armstrong, a bill is pending in the Ohio legislature that proposes a radical change in the definition of “injury” in the Workers’ Compensation Act. Senate Bill 5 would change the definition of “injury” in R.C. 4123.01(C) to read: “’Injury’ does not include psychiatric conditions except as follows: … where the claimant is a peace officer, firefighter, or emergency medical worker and is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder that has been received in the course of, and has arisen out of, the claimant’s employment as a peace officer, firefighter, or emergency medical worker.” That change would, for a select group of public employees, eliminate the requirement that a physical injury must cause a mental condition in order for the mental condition to be compensable.
Proponents of SB 5 see the change as one that would protect a group that is deserving and most likely to sustain a work-related psychiatric injury that is very real, and not at all uncommon, but currently not compensable.
Opponents see the proposed change as one that will open the floodgates to claims that will be very difficult to document and therefore very hard, if not impossible, to defend.
If the bill becomes law, it would be the first time a specific type of compensable injury would be available to only a select group of Ohio employees, so it is unclear whether it would pass constitutional scrutiny if challenged.