If you read our blog, you will notice that we aren’t big on using legal jargon. This is a blog for clients, not attorneys or insurance adjusters. That said, someone forwarded me a memo recently about when a psychological injury is compensable in Illinois and when it isn’t. The words below are not mine, but I think it does a good job of explaining what is covered and what isn’t and why that is so. I probably won’t do this much again and if it’s too wordy just go on to the next post of ours. Otherwise, I hope it helps.
In Pathfinder Company v. Industrial Commission, 343 N.E.2d 913 (Ill. 1976), the petitioner was instructing a coworker how to operate a machine press when the coworker severed her hand in the press. The petitioner then “pulled the severed hand from the machine and fainted at the site of it.” Id. at 915. She was taken to the hospital and remained there overnight after suffering an anxiety reaction. This included a variety of symptoms such as headaches, numbness in her hands and feet, and nervousness. Id. The petitioner eventually quit her job due to her psychological injuries. She spent time in the hospital as a result, and her physician believed that the accident which she had been exposed to had “a tremendous impact on her consciousness and that the memory is still there.” Id.
In determining whether the petitioner’s psychological injuries were compensable, the court reviewed case law from other jurisdictions. It concluded that under the liberal construction of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act, an employee that suffers a sudden, severe emotional shock traceable to a definite time, place and cause which causes psychological injury or harm has suffered an “accident” within the meaning of the Act, though no physical trauma or injury was sustained. Id. at 917. The court reasoned that it would be illogical to allow compensation for psychological injuries when accompanied by a minor physical injury, only to deny benefits for a similar psychological injury when brought about when a petitioner experiences sudden and severe emotional shock but was fortunate enough not to sustain physical injury. Id.
The Pathfinder decision, however, was limited in its scope by the case of General Motors Parts Division v. Industrial Commission, 522 N.E.2d 1260 (Ill. App. Ct. 1988). In that case, the petitioner attempted to recover benefits for psychological injuries sustained when “his supervisor verbally assaulted him with profane, racial slurs.” Id. at 1260. The court, however, denied compensation as the evidence indicated the petitioner’s mental stability was brought on by a series of events over time and not a single traumatic incident like that in Pathfinder. Id. at 1256-66. Moreover, the court stated “we do not read Pathfinder to permit recovery for every nontraumatic psychic injury from which an employee suffers merely because the employee can identify some stressful work-related episode…” Id. at 1266. In ruling so, the court limited Pathfinder by stating it “only authorizes an award of benefits only when the employee suffers a sudden severe shock which produces immediate disability and is caused by an uncommon non-traumatic work-related experience out of proportion to the incidents of normal employment.” Id. at 1267.
The Pathfinder standard was further limited by the case of Chicago Board of Education v. Industrial Commission, 523 N.E.2d 912 (Ill. App. Ct. 1988). In that case, the petitioner sought compensation under the Workers’ Occupational Diseases Act for psychological injuries from a series of traumatic events over time ranging from being robbed to generally poor working conditions. Id. at 913-14. The court found, however, that due to the potential for abuse by employees making fraudulent claims, recovery could not be allowed for psychological injuries which gradually come to fruition over time within the normal course of employment. Id. at 917. Thus, the court found the applicable test was that mental disorders which are a result of gradual deterioration over time are only compensable when: (1) the disorder arose from a situation greater than the day to day emotional stress all employees endure; (2) the conditions existed from an objective standpoint, not merely in the eyes of the injured employee; and (3) the employment conditions were greater cause to the disorder than non-employment conditions. Id. at 918.
Pathfinder’s limitations have been applied to cases involving police and paramedics. These case have generally found that while these employees may be exposed to a shocking event which would normally meet original Pathfinder test, they are continually exposed to similar types of traumatic events and thus to do meet the tests stated in General Motors. See Ushman v. City of Springfield, 05 Il.W.C. 08480 (2008); Burney v. Jersey Community Hospital, 04 Il.W.C. 41965 (2006). In addition, benefits have also been denied when a petitioner delays seeking medical treatment for the alleged psychological or mental injury, as this does not satisfy the “immediate” requirement of General Motors. See, e.g., Turrentine v. Springfield Park District, 97 Il.W.C. 61559 (1999).
It is also clear that the IWCC and Illinois courts are reluctant to extend the Pathfinder doctrine for fear of opening the floodgates of litigation. For example, in Board of Education of the City of Chicago v. Industrial Commission, 538 N.E.2d 830 (Ill. App. Ct. 1989), the court denied benefits to a school teacher for psychological injuries allegedly sustained as the result of being slapped by a student. In holding so, the court distinguished Pathfinder, stating that the employee had been developing emotional depression over the course of the past year and the slapping incident “was a risk connected with the claimant’s employment that could or might occur in the ordinary course of events to a person engaged as a school teacher.” Id. at 832-33. Thus, this event did not concern a situation of greater dimension than the experience encountered by teachers in the Chicago school system.
Generally speaking, while Pathfinder does allow for compensation for psychological injuries even though no physical injury is actually sustained, the development of its doctrine over time has severely limited the impact of the original decision.
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