A recent decision of the Connecticut Supreme Court sheds light on some common misunderstandings of the reach of workers compensation benefits.
The basic events in Hart v. Federal Express Corporation, 321 Conn. 1 (decided April 19, 2016) are not controversial. The plaintiff was a delivery driver who experienced a debilitating combination of a large number of stops, difficult deliveries, heavy traffic and a hot day in a truck that was not air-conditioned. He was unable to take any breaks for rest, lunch and even hydration. Finally, at a delivery to a fire station, he called for a substitute driver and asked the fire personnel for assistance. They found a highly accelerated heart rate and called for an ambulance. The plaintiff was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with a serious heart condition.
The Workers Compensation Commission had no trouble in determining that the plaintiff’s condition was compensable because it arose out of and in the course of employment. Although his heart arrhythmia was resolved by medication, his course of treatment and related psychological issues kept him on temporary total disability for nearly a year. In rejecting the employer’s appeal, the Connecticut Supreme Court discussed some issues which illustrate what the Court called the broad and remedial nature of the Workers Compensation Act.
- Pre-Existing Conditions. The employer attempted first to appeal on the basis that the employee had a pre-existing, but asymptomatic medical condition. However, the Court noted that a pre-existing condition which is aggravated by a workplace injury so that it becomes symptomatic and requires treatment is deemed to arise out of employment and is compensable.
- Psychological Injuries. The Workers Compensation Act excludes mental or emotional impairments which result from personnel actions such as transfers, demotions or termination, or which do not result from a physical injury or emotional disease. The employee was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which the employer argued arose from earlier disciplinary warnings or from the stress of being out of work and having to pursue a legal claim. However, the Court accepted the findings of the workers compensation commissioner that although his job loss might have aggravated the employee’s psychological condition, the emotional trauma of the cardiac event was sufficient to cause PSTD, which was therefore compensable.
- The Employee’s Physical Activity. The employer appealed the award of temporary total disability benefits for nearly one year because the employee frequented a gym and undertook strenuous workouts during that time. But the Court agreed with the workers compensation commissioner that although the employee had no physical restrictions as a result of his heart condition, his mental status together with the need for extensive heart monitoring justified the decision of his physicians to keep him out of work.
The take-away is that a workers compensation claim can be made even though an employee has a pre-existing condition, suffers mostly psychological effects, or maintains an active non-work lifestyle. As long as the assessment by the employee’s physicians is plausible, it will be accepted by the Workers Compensation Commission and not second-guessed by the courts.