Whether an injury is a compensable mental claim depends on whether the stress the applicant was exposed, not the event, was unexpected, unusual or extraordinary.

In France, the applicant worked as a deputy sheriff. While on duty, in June 2017, the applicant and his partner were dispatched to a home to investigate 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. The applicant appealed and the Arizona Court of Appeals (the Court) found that the ALJ incorrectly applied the law and set the award aside.

The Court stated that the issue is not whether the event itself was “unexpected, unusual or extraordinary,” but whether the stress the applicant was exposed to as a result of the employment was “unexpected, unusual or extraordinary.” The Court reasoned that an event, like the dispatch of a law enforcement officer to investigate a report of threatened violence, may be routine. But the stress of the event, which here included staring down the barrel of a loaded shotgun held by a screaming manic gunman, careful repositioning to avoid injury to a fellow officer, and shooting and killing another human being at point-blank range, may not be routine. In this case, the ALJ’s findings regarding the applicant’s training and job duties focused upon the nature of the event, rather than the nature of the stress.

Pursuant to A.R.S. § 23-1043.01(B), “a mental injury, illness or condition shall not be considered a personal injury by accident arising out of and in the course of employment and is not compensable … unless some unexpected, unusual or extraordinary stress related to the employment or some physical injury related to the employment was a substantial contributing cause of the mental injury, illness or condition.”

The Court held that the phrase “unexpected, unusual or extraordinary stress related to the employment” must be read as a whole. The Court explained that this simply means that the injury-inducing stress imposed upon the applicant by virtue of employment was sufficiently significant and noteworthy to differentiate it from the daily wear and tear of living. The Court clarified that they are not suggesting that every situation in which a law enforcement officer draws a weapon or uses deadly force will result in a compensable claim; instead, a causal connection between the employment-related event and the alleged mental injury must also be established. However, the possibility that an event might occur in the course of employment and the extent of training to handle a situation are not dispositive to this determination. The Court set the award aside.

France v. Indus. Comm’n of Ariz., 2020 WL 772524, — P.3d — (Feb. 18, 2020)

Would you like to know more?  Contact Ilene H. Feldmeier at ifeldmeier@pollartmiller.com or 877-259-5693.

From the April 2020 Newsletter