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Workers' Compensation FAQ

Workers' Compensation and Mental or Emotional Stress

It is well known that workers' compensation is available for people who are injured on the job. What may not be so clear is what constitutes an injury. If you have to pull your co-workers bloody hand from a piece of machinery, causing you emotional distress, is that a compensable injury? A court in Illinois said yes. Ultimately, whether certain emotional or mental affects of workplace events will be covered by workers' compensation depends on state law and how the courts rule in similar matters. Therefore, the answer can vary tremendously from state to state.

As in all workers' compensation claims, an employee making a claim for emotional distress or mental stress must show that there has been an injury and that the injury was work-related. Many states include mental and emotional conditions in their definitions of injury, but most states have definitions that are more ambiguous. It is often necessary to look at decisions of the workers' compensation courts and the civil courts in order to understand how the law has been interpreted.

Some state laws include the requirement that an injury manifest itself with physical symptoms. What the courts consider a physical symptom is also something that will vary. Some courts require objective physical evidence of an emotional response like fainting, sickly appearance, pale face, or nervousness. Other courts will use a more subjective standard and may accept evidence of changed emotional state.

If an employee can show that they have suffered an injury, then they must still show that the injury was the result of a work-related event. Usually a claim is considered work-related if it occurs while the employee is performing their usual duties, while they are on breaks, and when they are running errands for the benefit of their employer. Company social events are usually covered by workers' compensation too. The work-related activities definition would be the same for a person making a claim for a mental or emotional problem as someone making a claim for a broken leg. The difference is it may be harder for the former to prove the connection between their injury and the workplace.

When a traumatizing event occurs, such as pulling an injured hand out of a machine, the connection between the emotional response and the event is clear. If the emotional distress is the result of harassment or the stress of work duties, then it may be more difficult to show a connection between the symptoms and the cause. This is the challenge of bringing claims for mental and emotional conditions that do not result from a physical injury.

Since this area of law is still developing, it can be difficult to predict when a condition will be covered. Courts have gone both ways, for example, about whether or not distress caused by workplace discrimination or harassment is compensable. When it comes to stress caused by an employee doing his or her regular duties or because his or her duties have changed, most courts have found that the employee should not be compensated. This area of law continues to change as society is more willing to acknowledge the affects of nonphysical injuries.

Finally, there is the issue of emotional distress that is the result of an intentional act by the employer. If the employer, or one of its agents, does something with the intent to cause distress then it may take the case out of the realm of workers' compensation and allow the employee to bring a private lawsuit. A careful reading of state law is needed to determine if workers' compensation remains the exclusive remedy in that situation so an experienced workers' compensation attorney should be consulted. Often, an employee will have the additional option of going to court under these or similar circumstances.

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