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Police Officer PTSD Claims Generally Not Compensable

Officer’s involvement in a police shooting grounds for a workers’ compensation claim?

James Cook, a police officer for the East Greenbush Police Department, responded to a call where a gunman was taking shots at passing motorists and the police.

Cook and a fellow officer approached the gunman. The fellow officer shot and killed the gunman.

Officer Cook filed a claim for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”), alleging that he was mentally disabled as a result of the experience. Cook’s supervisor testified, calling the events “extraordinary” and supporting Cook’s claims for psychiatric disability following the event.

(These facts come from the reported decsision).

The Law

For a mental injury premised on work-related stress to be compensable, “the stress must be greater than that which usually occurs in the normal work environment.” See Charlotten v New York State Police, 286 AD2d 849, 849 (2001), and Guess v Finger Lakes Ambulance, 28 AD3d 996, 997 (2006), cert. denied, 7 NY3d 707 (2006). Whether the stress experienced by a claimant is more than that normally encountered is a factual question for the trial judge to resolve, and will not overturned on appeal unless there is substantial evidence to the contrary. See Brittain v New York State Ins. Dept., 107 AD3d 1340, 1341 (2013) and Charlotten, supra.

The Decision & Appeal.

In the Cook case, although claimant’s supervisor described the particular circumstances of the encounter as “extraordinary,” trial judge found that the regular course of duty for a police officer—no matter the size of the department—requires that he or she be on notice each day that deadly force may be required to subdue a suspect who is endangering public safety. Therefore, the claim was not compensable. The Appellate Court upheld the denial of benefits.

Tips for defending “mental stress” claims.

  • Because of the presumption against compensability, nearly all “mental-mental” psychiatric stress claims should be denied from the outset. Remember: in New York, failure to file timely denial forms acts as a waiver of defenses!
  • These claims turn on their facts and not the subjective impressions of the claimant or even their supervisors. In the Cook case, the claimant’s supervisor testified that the shooting was “extraordinary.” That statement was not given weight as the trial judge was aware that the use of deadly force is the “regular course of duty” for a police officer.
  • The reasoning in this decision applies to other professions as well: for example, ambulance drivers or first responders of any kind.
  • The typical “mental-mental” psychiatric injury claim is brought in the context of a poor performance review, a termination for poor performance, demotion, or discipline imposed by an employer. Those claims are not compensable if the alleged psychiatric stress injury resulted from “the direct consequence of a lawful personnel decision involving a disciplinary action, work evaluation, job transfer, demotion, or termination taken in good faith by the employer.” See Workers’ Compensation Law § 2 [7], accord Matter of DePaoli v Great A & P Tea Co., 94 NY2d 377, 380 (2000).
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