As claimant’s attorneys, we deal quite often with employees’ physical injuries. But what happens when an injured worker suffers a psychological injury- are claimants entitled to benefits? The answer is a complex yes and no. The Code of Virginia does not differentiate between physical injuries and psychological injuries. But, over the time, the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission and the Appellate Courts have interpreted case law applying to psychological injuries. The most recent case, and perhaps the most salient, is Hess v. Va. State Police.
In Hess, a state trooper encountered a graphic motor vehicle accident scene and developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He did not have any physical injuries. He filed a workers’ compensation claim and his case went all the way up to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals determined that if an employee suffers a purely psychological injury, it must be caused by a sudden shock or fright which arises out of the employment while the triggering event must occur in the course of the employment. However, the Court’s inquiry did not end there. The Court asked further whether the triggering event was an expected occurrence in the performance of Hess’ duties. In affirming the denial of benefits to Hess, the Court of Appeals ruled that encountering a traffic fatality such as Hess did, did not equate to a situation that was sudden or shocking, and instead, that traffic fatalities are “unfortunately frequent and expected occurrences” for state troopers. 
The Court of Appeals has effectively ruled that pure psychological injuries resulting from a work-related event must not be usual or even expected occurrences. In explaining this rational, the Court discussed UPS v. Prince as an example. In Prince, a delivery driver, while making a routine delivery encountered one of his regular customers laying in her doorway, a victim of homicide. In explaining why this triggering event led to an award of benefits for PTSD, while Hess’s did not, the Court clarified that encountering a murder scene was an unexpected occurrence for a delivery driver. Encountering a traffic fatality was not an unexpected occurrence for a state trooper.
While purely psychological injuries do occur, we frequently encounter claimants who develop psychological injuries as a result of physical injuries. Are those compensable? The answer is it depends. Consider the injured worker who is suffering from a physical injury- an amputation. His physical wounds are healing but he is getting progressively depressed. He can no longer use his body the same way, he may have phantom pain of the limb that serves to further remind him of his injury- this psychological injury is related to his physical work accident. Discussions of sudden shock or whether a psychological injury is expected are not relevant to this type of scenario because there is also a physical injury component. However, consider the claimant who is injured and unable to work. He has mounting bills and financial responsibility which lead to anxiety and depression; his psychological injuries may not be compensable.
Physical injuries can take an emotional toll on injured workers, and psychological injuries may be compensable. If you are interested in pursuing psychological injuries related to your work accident, give us a call today so we can help.