States Consider Workers' Compensation Reforms for First Responder PTSD
A number of legislative efforts over the last year have focused on making it simply for first responders grappling with PTSD to obtain workers' compensation benefits.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is probably best recognized as a condition afflicting combat soldiers. In those instances, the development of the condition typically arises from a singular incident or a brief exposure to trauma. First responders, meanwhile, typically incur what's called cumulative PTSD, meaning it builds up over the course of many years. It's a disorder characterized by failure to recover after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. But for police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics, PTSD can develop over decades of work-related stress.
Despite its very real consequences, obtaining coverage is often no simple matter. In fact, in many states it's impossible. Illinois is one of the few wherein first responders may have a decent shot of obtaining workers' compensation for PTSD, and that's only thanks to a court ruling handed down last year.
As our Illinois workers' compensation attorneys know, this case set an important precedent for first responders in the state.
In Moran v. Illinois Workers' Compensation Comm'n, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, ruled in July 2016 that a senior fire officials claiming PTSD following a line-of-duty death of a fellow firefighter should be allowed to receive benefits. The ruling effectively reversed several previous rulings to the contrary.
According to court records, plaintiff, a paramedic and lieutenant, took command of a fire scene in March 2010. He did so from outside the burning house. Soon after, there was a flashover, where fire spreads rapidly across a gap due to intense heat. Several firefighters came stumbling out of the house, dragging a fellow firefighter who was in obvious distress. He sounded the mayday alarm, secured an ambulance and continued to maintain control of the site. He and others were later informed the firefighter died.
Soon after, plaintiff says he started seeing a psychiatrist. He couldn't tear his mind away from the fire. He had trouble sleeping. Interactions with family became strained. He was diagnosed with PTSD. He was treated for the condition for several months, then stopped, then returned a few months later.
When he sought workers' compensation coverage for PTSD, an arbitrator ruled that when a firefighter is killed in a blaze, it's one of the known risks associated with being a firefighter. Employer argued that because plaintiff hadn't been inside the house at the time of the flashover and hadn't witnessed the actual incident, didn't suffer physical injury himself and wasn't involved directly in resuscitation efforts, he couldn't claim benefits. The arbitrator decided that because the firefighter was unable to show he sustained accidental injuries arising out of the course and scope of employment, he could be awarded no benefits. Both the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission and the Circuit Court of Cook County affirmed.
The appellate court, however, reversed. The panel ruled the fact of the claimant being outside the house at the time of the incident doesn't mean it wasn't traumatic.
Other states have been weighing this issue too. In Colorado, for example, a bill would expand state law to indicate workers' compensation coverage could be extended for a psychologically traumatic event. In Vermont, the state house passed a bill that would offer first responders the presumption that they are entitled to benefits for PTSD, which employers would have to rebut. That bill only allows claims for injuries within the last three years of the last active date and wouldn't extend coverage if the trigger for PTSD wasn't work-related. In Florida, a state senate bill would treatment of PTSD for first responders more accessible by altering a current law that prohibits firefighters and police officers from claiming workers' compensation for mental injuries. In New York, the new state budget will prevent the state workers' compensation board from prohibiting first-responders from filing claims for benefits on the basis of a mental injury caused by "extraordinary work-related stress."