Prison guard gets 2nd chance to prove PTSD claim after assault
Case name: Kelly v. State of Alaska, Dept. of Corrections, No. S-12814, No. 6422 (Alaska 10/16/09).
Ruling: The Alaska Supreme Court reversed the finding that a correctional officer did not experience extraordinary and unusual stress and remanded for the Workers' Compensation Board to determine whether the officer was permanently and totally disabled.
What it means:
In Alaska, when evaluating a pre-2005 claim for a mental injury caused by mental stress, the standard is whether a worker suffered "extraordinary and unusual stress." The court should focus on the character and quality of the offending events rather than the frequency.
Summary: A correctional officer alleged he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after being threatened with physical injury and death by an inmate who had been convicted of murder and was armed with a weapon. He was threatened by a second inmate on a separate occasion. After paying permanent partial disability benefits for almost nine years, the employer controverted the claim. The employer argued the threats were not out of the ordinary. The officer argued the stress he experienced was extraordinary and unusual, even for prison guards. The Workers' Compensation Board ruled that the officer's claim was noncompensable because the stress he experienced was not extraordinary and unusual. The Supreme Court noted that the law in effect at the time of the incident required that work-related stress "be measured by actual events." It further held the board erred in focusing on the frequency of the threats rather than the character and nature of the actual threat. It reversed and remanded the decision for a determination of PTD benefits.
The employer based its controversion on the opinion of one independent medical examiner. In her opinion, the officer did not have PTSD and had not been exposed to more extraordinary or unusual stress than any other officer in the facility. A second IME opined the inmate's threat to stab the officer and kill him was by itself sufficiently traumatic to justify a PTSD diagnosis.
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November 30, 2009
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