Iowa Supreme Reverses, Finds 911 Dispatcher’s PTSD Claim Compensable
The 911 dispatch center that employed Mandy Tripp denied her workers’ compensation claim for post-traumatic stress syndrome because fielding calls involving death and injury are part of the job.
A divided Iowa Supreme Court rejected that reasoning on Friday, ruling that emergency responders cannot be held to a higher standard to prove eligibility for benefits than workers in other roles.
“Our workers’ compensation statute doesn’t impose a higher burden on workers with jobs that involve frequent brushes with traumatic events than workers in other occupations,” the high court said in a 4-3 decision.
Iowa is the latest state to grapple with the standard that should be used to determine whether a worker qualifies for workers’ compensation because of PTSD. The National Council on Compensation Insurance said that PTSD for emergency responders was a top trending issue in 2019, with 17 states enacting legislation on the topic that year and 17 more considering bills.
Many states bar compensation for mental injuries entirely or allow compensation only if there is a corresponding physical injury. Others limit benefits to emergency responders or allow benefits for PTSD only in limited circumstances.
State high courts are often called upon to draw the line. Most recently, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in 2021 that a police officer who developed PTSD after a shootout with a gunman during a welfare check was eligible for workers’ compensation. Appellate courts in Illinois and Louisiana have also ruled that mental injuries caused by sudden events rather than the ordinary stress caused by working conditions are compensable, the majority opinion says.
The Iowa Supreme Court decided in 1995 that workers are entitled to benefits for mental injuries without a corresponding physical injury, according to the majority opinion. In Dunlavey v. Economy Fire & Casualty Co., the court ruled that in cases involving a mental injury with no physical component, a worker must show that the workplace stress is “unusual” and of “a greater magnitude” than the day-to-day stress experienced by other workers holding similar jobs.
In 2002 the court approved benefits for a convenience store clerk who suffered PTSD after witnessing a shooting, even though he was not physically injured. In Brown v. QuikTrip, the court “walked back” its earlier standard, according to the Supreme Court majority. The court found the store clerk’s claim was compensable because his injury was “based on a manifest happening of a sudden traumatic nature from an unexpected cause or unusual strain.”
Tripp filed a workers’ compensation claim with Scott County’s Emergency Communications Center in November 2018, approximately two months after taking a particularly stressful 911 call. A woman repeatedly screamed into the phone, “Help me, my baby is dead!” Tripp stayed on the phone with the woman for two minutes and 15 seconds before finally calming the caller enough to get an address.
Later, Tripp and her co-workers heard radio traffic from emergency responders who said “rigor had set in,” and police officers who discussed “a potential crime scene” and said that it looked as if the child’s head had been “struck by a claw hammer.”
Tripp struggled for weeks after the call. She cried constantly, had trouble sleeping and withdrew socially, according to court pleadings. She started having suicidal thoughts and startled when hearing loud noises. She sought psychological counseling and was diagnosed with PTSD. A psychiatrist testified that she was permanently disabled.
Scott County’s insurer, the Iowa Municipalities Workers’ Compensation Association, denied her claim on the grounds that such calls are not “unusual or unexpected” — a reference to the ruling in Brown. A deputy commissioner, the state workers’ compensation commissioner and a district court judge agreed.
But the Supreme Court majority said Tripp’s stress during the 2018 call was unusual and unexpected. The court cited testimony from other dispatchers who said while they regularly receive calls involving deaths, those rarely involve infants.
The majority said nothing in Iowa statutes requires emergency workers to show that their mental injury was caused by “hyper-unexpected causes and hyper-unusual strains” to qualify for benefits.
“We thus hold that the district court erred in its interpretation of the statute in ruling otherwise,” the majority opinion, written by Justice Matthew McDermott, says. Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justices Brent R. Appel and Dana Oxley joined the majority opinion.
Christensen wrote a separate opinion that urged the state legislature to “adopt a statute similar to Minnesota’s that provides a rebuttable presumption that a PTSD diagnosis was caused by the first responder’s job.”
Justices Edward M. Mansfield, Christopher McDonald and Thomas Waterman dissented.
“The majority’s ill-advised change to the legal causation element in mental injury claims opens the floodgates to fraudulent claims that are difficult to disprove and will drive up the cost of doing business in Iowa,” the dissenters said in a separate opinion written by Waterman.
It appears that Tripp has moved on. According to her page on Linkedin, she left her position with the dispatch center last December and is now employed as a reemployment career planner for the state of Iowa.
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