More Missouri mental stress claims headed our way?

Missouri’s Appellate Court recently ruled on a mental stress case* involving a woman who worked for the Missouri Department of Transportation and whose job required her to respond to traffic accidents. She claimed to have witnessed many disturbing events during her 20 years on the job. For example, she testified that she accidentally kicked the decapitated head of a car crash victim and listened to a child screaming while being burned to death. The employer denied the claim using the “similarly situated worker” defense and  contending that her experiences were no different from other employees doing the same job. Previously, Missouri courts required that mental injury cases must be “extraordinary and unusual” when compared to “similarly situated employees.” In this case, the Commission disagreed with the employer and awarded the claimant benefits in the amount of 50% partial permanent disability.  Both sides had agreed that the claimant had depression but the employer’s expert set her disability rating at 2 ½% while the claimant’s doctor set her rating between 90% and 95%.  The employer appealed the decision.

On appeal, the claimant argued that based on the 2005 statutory reforms that it was no longer necessary to prove that a mental injury was extraordinary and unusual compared to other employees doing the same work to qualify for benefits.  The argument required a strict reading of the law which states “Mental injury resulting from work-related stress does not arise out of and in the course of employment, unless it’s demonstrated that the stress is work related and was extraordinary and unusual. The amount of work stress shall be measured by objective standards and actual events.”  The claimant argued that there is no mention of having to compare the stress to a similarly situated employee.

The appeals court agreed that the strict reading of the law does not require a comparison to a similarly situated employee and only requires that the work stress be “extraordinary and unusual“.  The court found that the events witnessed by the claimant in this case and the stress that she was under was extraordinary and unusual. The 50% partial permanent disability was affirmed.

Despite the expected intention of the 2005 reforms to reduce the number of compensable claims, this case is an example where it is having the opposite effect.

* Linda Mantia v. Missouri Department of Transportation, Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern Dist., Div. 3, No. ED103016, 6/14/16

Thanks to veteran attorney Jill Baker for the summary of this new development.  Jill works out of the Chicago and St. Louis offices of Inman and Fitzgibbons and can be reached at jbaker@inmanfitzgibbons.com.

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