June 25, 2019

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Illinois Firefighter Permitted To Recover Benefits For PTSD Related To The Death Of A Co-Worker

The Appellate Court, Workers’ Compensation Commission Division, recently handed down what can only be described as an expansive interpretation of when an employee can recover for psychological disability when the accident caused no physical injury. In Moran v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, 2016 IL App (1st) 151366WC, the claimant, a lieutenant with the Village of Homewood Fire Department, was called to a residential fire and was in command of the crew at the scene. While the claimant was positioned outside of the home, a fellow firefighter named Carey sustained fatal injuries while battling the fire inside the house. The claimant did not suffer any physical injury of his own, did not witness his colleague’s death, and did not participate in the rescue of the injured firefighter. However, the claimant did observe his colleague being removed from the scene of the fire.

Since the claimant did not suffer any physical injury in the fire, his claim was pursued under the so-called “mental-mental” theory of recovery. Under this theory, an employee who suffers a “sudden, severe emotional shock” traceable to a definite time, place, and cause which causes psychological injury or harm is deemed to have suffered an accident even though he sustained no physical harm or trauma.

In Moran, the medical evidence indicated the claimant developed post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his experience. There was also evidence that the employer considered the trauma significant, because the firehouse was closed for several days after the death and the employer offered counseling services for the firefighters.

The arbitrator denied the claim, finding the claimant did not suffer a “sudden, severe emotional shock” as a result of his co-worker’s death. The arbitrator found it significant the claimant did not suffer any physical injuries of his own and was not directly involved in the death or attempted rescue of his colleague. The Commission affirmed the denial of benefits, as did the circuit court. The claimant appealed.

In a unanimous ruling, the appellate court reversed the Commission’s decision, found the claim compensable, and remanded the case for further proceedings. In so doing, the Court determined that the circumstances surrounding the death of the claimant’s colleague and the claimant’s reaction to the death established that the claimant developed PTSD as “a severe reaction to an exceptionally distressing emotional shock.” Moran, 2016 IL App (1st) 151366WC, ¶ 42. According to the appellate court, the claimant's presence outside the house did not preclude the event from being traumatic.

The claimant was in command of the fire. He instructed the crew on where to enter the house and what gauge hose to use. He planned to go inside the house when Carey told him "we got this," and he opted to remain outside to command. He escalated the fire alarm to a "full still." He saw Carey dragged from the house. Because there was no ambulance readily available, he secured an ambulance. He supervised the scene and obtained medical care for Carey. When Chief Grabowski arrived at the scene, the claimant informed him that Carey was badly injured and that he should go to the hospital. Carey died from injuries sustained in the fire.

Id. ¶ 40.

Moreover, the appellate court observed that the “claimant's condition was not a gradual deterioration of his mental processes brought on by a variety of factors but a single, work-related event.” Id. ¶ 42. Dr. McManus, who examined the claimant, concluded that the claimant had “feelings of guilt about the fire and felt the burden of responsibility for Carey's death because of his command role.” Id.

The court also focused on the employer’s actions immediately following the accident, finding they supported a compensable claim. The appellate court noted:

The employer's actions following the March 30, 2010, fire indicate that it believed the first responders suffered a sudden, severe, emotional shock of greater dimension than emotional strain and tension all employees experience from worry, anxiety, pressure and overwork. Due to the traumatic nature of the event, all first responders returned to the station for critical incident debriefing. For the first time in the history of the fire department, the department ceased performing fire suppression and emergency medical service operations and referred all calls to mutual aid companies for a period of approximately ten days. This decision was made by Chief Grabowski and Deputy Chief Johnson after consultation with Dr. McManus. The defendant was not permitted to return to work until cleared by Dr. McManus who the employer hired to treat firefighters involved in the March 30, 2010, fire. 

Id. ¶ 47.

The court’s decision in Moran is a departure from a line of cases such as Diaz v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, 2013 IL App (2d) 120294WC, and Pathfinder Co. v. Industrial Comm’n, 62 Ill. 2d 556 (1976), which held that highly stressful situations, such as the death of a colleague, can be anticipated in the normal course of work for firefighters and police officers. This case is also important because it allowed for recovery for an individual who did not personally witness the death of his colleague and because the court looked, at least in some sense, to the employer’s actions following the accident in determining whether the incident constituted a traumatic accident.

© 2019 Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen, P.C

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About this Author

John Flodstrom, Heyl Royster Law Firm, Employee Defense Attorney
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John has a practice that is divided between the defense of employers in cases pending before the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission and the representation of defendants in civil litigation in state and federal court at the trial and appellate court levels.

John's workers' compensation defense practice entails representing employers of all sizes at dockets in Central and Southern Illinois.  John appears on a regular basis at the dockets in Herrin, Mt. Vernon, and Urbana.  Employers represented by John include numerous...

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