The Supreme Court’s September 12 decision in Mantia v. Missouri Department of Transportation comes as a breath of fresh air for the defense.
Facts: The claimant worked for MODOT for 20+ years at motor vehicle accident scenes, often assisting at accident sites involving serious injuries or fatalities to children and whole families. In 2008, the claimant was diagnosed with depression by her primary care physician. Then, from 2008 until early 2013, the claimant began attending counseling sessions with a different doctor, Dr. Jovick. Claimant shared with Dr. Jovick her belief she lacked motivation and that her self-image as a supervisor had declined.
In 2008, the claimant filed a claim for workers’ compensation seeking benefits for mental injuries. At trial, Dr. Jovick testified in behalf of the claimant and stated that his diagnosis was work-related depression and work-related post-traumatic stress disorder. MODOT’s expert, Dr. Stillings, testified he has experience treating MODOT workers, Illinois Department of Transportation workers, and workers from private companies who work at highway accident scenes. Importantly, Dr. Stillings explained that it was not unusual or extraordinary for these workers to experience human tragedy as part of their employment.
Outcome: First understand that Section 287.120.8 provides the statutory authority for finding a compensable mental injury under the Act. However, this section also requires a heightened standard; specifically, a claimant is required to prove that mental injury resulted from work-related stress which was “extraordinary and unusual”. The statute also requires the work-related stress be measured by “objective standards and actual events”. Thus, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied the claim, finding that Mantia had failed to meet the heightened standard of proving she suffered “extraordinary and unusual” work-related stress. However, upon appeal to the Commission, the ALJ’s decision was reversed. The Commission awarded the claimant 50 percent permanent partial disability as a result of her mental injury and ordered MODOT to pay for future medical care to treat her mental injury.
The Court’s Decision: The Supreme Court’s discussion in this case focused squarely on the Commission’s failure to apply the legal meaning of “objective”. While this objective standard is not defined by the Act itself, the Supreme Court found that their present case law clearly established what that definition should be. The Court found that the objective standard would be whether a reasonable highway worker would suffer extraordinary and unusual stress as a result of exposure to the events the claimant had experienced. While the Court found plenty of subjective evidence of the claimant’s work-related mental-injury, they also found the record lacked sufficient objective evidence that such stress, when applied to a reasonable highway worker, would also be considered extraordinary and unusual. Accordingly, the Commission’s award was reversed and the cause remanded for proper review of the claimant’s evidence to determine if her evidence met the correct standard of proof.
The Take Away: What, or who, is a “reasonable highway worker”? The Court referred to the standards of proof used in negligence and medical malpractice cases as examples of the distinction between subjective and objective standards, but does that translate to a WC mental stress case? Not easily. Interestingly, the Court, in dicta, referred to Sec. 287.120.10, the section which creates, in effect, a presumption of work-related stress in the case of firefighters, to support their decision. The Court pointed out that 287.120.10 wouldn’t be needed but for the necessity for all other claimants to prove unusual and extraordinary stress by objective standards. One wonders if, on remand, this claimant’s evidence will support an award in the context of the required objective standards. Regardless though, this decision appears to be a victory for strict construction.
Copyright: Evans & Dixon, LLC, 2017