An officer shooting and killing a gunman during a welfare check is an unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary event to establish a mental claim for PTSD.

In France, the applicant was employed as a deputy sheriff for Gila County. While on duty, in June 2017, the applicant and his partner were dispatched to a home to do a welfare check on a man threatening to kill himself. When the applicant and his partner arrived, a gunman holding a shotgun in a shooting stance burst through a door between the two officers. The gunman rushed at the applicant and aimed the shotgun at the applicant’s face and chest in close range while screaming in rage. The applicant and his partner could not shoot without possibly injuring each other because the gunman was between them. The gunman ignored repeated requests to drop his gun while the officers backed off. When the officers were no longer in each other’s line of fire, they shot the gunman multiple times and the applicant watched him die. By mid-July 2017, the applicant was diagnosed with PTSD due to the incident and filed a workers’ compensation claim. Workers’ compensation benefits were denied because the injury did not arise out of some unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary stress related to the employment. The case proceeded to hearing and the ALJ found that the applicant was exposed to the “same stress that any other Gila County Sheriff’s Deputy would have faced under the same circumstances and therefore the applicant’s job-related stress was not unusual, unexpected, or extraordinary.” The ALJ found that even though the applicant produced medical testimony to support the incident was psychologically extraordinary, this did not mean it was legally extraordinary. Thus, the ALJ denied the applicant’s claim. The applicant appealed and the Industrial Commission affirmed the ALJ’s Order. The applicant appealed again and the Arizona Court of Appeals (the Court) found that the ALJ incorrectly applied the law and set the award aside. The Arizona Supreme Court (the Supreme Court) then granted certiorari to review the decision because the case involved an issue of statewide importance and statutory construction.

The defendants argued that the Court erred by applying a standard based solely on the applicant’s subjective, personal reaction and did not examine whether the applicant’s work-related stress was reasonable as compared to the stress experienced by his fellow employees with the same job duties. The Supreme Court clarified the standard that applied to determine whether a mental injury arises from “some unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary stress related to employment.” The Supreme Court stated that pursuant to A.R.S. § 23-1043.01(B), a claimant must show that (1) the work-related stress “was a substantial contributing cause of the mental injury” and (2) the stress was “unexpected, unusual or extraordinary.” In this case, it was undisputed that the shooting incident caused the applicant’s PTSD; thus, the sole issue was whether the applicant’s injury was caused by some unexpected, unusual or extraordinary work-related stress.

The Supreme Court stated that the courts must apply an objective, reasonable person standard in determining whether the stress placed on an employee by a work-related incident is unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary. This standard requires courts to examine “the stressfulness of work-related events” from the standpoint of a “hypothetical reasonable person” with the same or similar job duties as the applicant. In this case, the ALJ failed to analyze whether the shooting incident imposed stress on the applicant that was unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary. The Supreme Court found that:

It is axiomatic that law enforcement officers are trained to respond to welfare checks, and that during such calls there is a possibility they might encounter a violent situation. But here, the specific work-related event that caused France’s injury was the attack on France and his subsequent shooting and killing of the gunman. The record in this case shows that this type of encounter by a law enforcement officer is exceedingly rare. For example, France testified that in his thirty-six years as a law enforcement officer, he was involved in two gunfights, including the subject incident, and only this incident involved killing a subject. Likewise, at the ICA hearing, several law enforcement officers with many years of service testified that, while they are trained and prepared to use lethal force in the line of duty, they had never been involved in a gunfight. And although the estimates varied, the evidence showed that officer-involved shootings in Gila County were extremely rare, with fewer than ten such incidents occurring over the past forty years. In short, the Shooting Incident is not the type of incident that is part of a law enforcement officer’s daily routine, nor is it expected that a deputy will face such a dramatic brush with death in responding to a welfare check.

The Supreme Court concurred with the Court’s decision to set aside the ALJ’s Order that had denied worker’s compensation benefits.

France v. Indus. Comm’n of Ariz., 481 P.3d 1162 (Mar. 2, 2021).

 

Want to know more? Contact Ilene Feldmeier at ifeldmeier@pollartmiller.com or 877-259-5693.

March 2021 Newsletter

2021-04-21T07:14:21+00:00