The compensability of work-related mental disabilities unaccompanied by physical illness has been a controversial topic in workers’ compensation law.  Workers’ compensation claims based on mental injuries caused by mental stimuli have been coined “mental-mental” claims, in contrast to “physical-mental” (physical impact causing mental injury) and “mental-physical” claims (mental stimulus causing physical injury).

          What do these legal terms actually mean?

          Here are a few cases for illustration:

“Mental-mental” claim based on accidental injury

          In Belcher v. T. Rowe Price, 329 Md. 709, 621 A.2d (1993), the employee, a secretary for T. Rowe Price Foundation, worked on the top floor of an office building located next to a construction site.  One morning a three-ton beam broke loose from its crane and crashed through the roof of T. Rowe Price’s building, landing with a deafening noise only five feet from Belcher’s desk.  The power in the building went out, pipes and wires were ripped apart, and debris covered Belcher.  Thereafter, Belcher experienced panic attacks, nightmares, and chest pains which were diagnosed as symptoms of PTSD. 

          Belcher was entitled to workers’ compensation for her injuries because they resulted from an accidental personal injury under the terms of the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act.  The Court explained that when a mental injury is precipitated by an “unexpected and unforeseen event that occurs suddenly or violently,”  a worker may recover for that mental injury if the injury is “capable of objective determination.” 

“Mental-mental” claim based on occupational disease – unsuccessful case

          In Davis v. Dyncorp,336 Md. 226, 647 A.2d 446 (1994), Davis was a computer operator employed by Dyncorp.  Davis alleged that he was continually subjected to serious harassment by his co-workers.  The sustained harassment, Davis contended, caused PTSD which prevented him from returning to work.  In contrast to Belcher, Davis maintained that he was entitled to compensation because he suffered an occupational disease, not an accidental personal injury.

          The Court held that Davis’s claim did not constitute an occupational disease under the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act because the alleged disease was not “due to the nature of an employment in which hazards of the occupational disease exist.”  The Court concluded that “nothing peculiar to Davis’s duties as a computer operator … made him more susceptible to harassment than in any other kind of employment.” 

 “Mental-mental” claim based on occupational disease – successful case

          In Means v. Baltimore County, 344 Md. 661, 689 A.2d 1238 (1997). the Court was faced with the question of whether a claimant’s PTSD, unaccompanied by physical disease, may be compensable as an occupational disease. The Court held that, under the particular facts of that case, PTSD could be compensable as an occupational disease. Means made a mental-mental claim – she alleged that a mental stimulus (the memory of the traumatic accidents) caused a mental injury (PTSD).

          The claimant was a paramedic and her condition was caused by her on-the-job exposure to a series of fatal accidents.  First, the Workers’ Compensation Commission concluded that the claimant had not suffered from an occupational disease arising out of and in the course of her employment.  On appeal to the circuit court, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer on the ground that, as a matter of law, PTSD may not form the basis of an occupational disease claim.  The Court of Appeals reversed and held that the non-physical nature of the claim did not automatically exclude it from coverage under the Workers’ Compensation Act.

          The Court distinguished the case from the Davis case by noting that, unlike the computer operator in the Davis case, the general nature of Means’s employment as a paramedic exposed her to events that could potentially cause PTSD.  The Court held that, if Means could present sufficient evidence to meet the statutory requisites of the Workers’ Compensation Act, her PTSD could be compensable under the Act as an occupational disease. 

          At Luchansky Law, we focus on helping employers understand the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act and the steps they need to take to minimize the risk of litigation and liability.  If you are interested in discussing recent Maryland Workers’ Compensation law that may affect your business, or need to discuss threatened or actual litigation, call Bruce Luchansky or Judd Millman at 410.522.1020.