Non-Traumatic Mental Injuries Under Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation

Under the Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation Act, “non-traumatic” mental injuries arising from extraordinary work stress are compensable. A non-traumatic mental injury is a psychological injury that a worker sustains in the course of his or her employment that is unrelated to any physical trauma or overuse of a body part. For example, if a teller at a local grocery store has a gun pointed at her in the course of an armed robbery and suffers no physical harm, but later on develops post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) due to the experience, that employee may have a valid worker’s compensation claim under Wisconsin law.

Establishment of the Extraordinary Stress Standard

Non-traumatic mental injuries were first recognized in Wisconsin in the 1974 Wisconsin Supreme Court case School Dist. No. 1 v. DILHR. In that case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court concluded that for a non-traumatic mental injury to be compensable, the event(s) that caused the injury “must have resulted from a situation of greater dimensions than the day-to-day emotional strain and tension which all employees must experience.” Now known as the “extraordinary stress” standard, since School Dist. No. 1, non-traumatic injuries have explicitly been codified into the Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation Act under § 102.01(2)(c).

Context Important to Classifying Non-Traumatic Mental Injuries

Wisconsin courts have attempted to refine the extraordinary stress standard over time. Currently, non-traumatic mental injuries will only be found compensable if they arise from extraordinary stresses in the context of a claimant’s line of work. Said differently, what could be considered extraordinary stress for a gas station clerk may not be considered extraordinary stress for a police officer. For example, in Bretl v. Labor and Industry Review Commission, the court denied a police officer’s non-traumatic mental injury claim after he shot and wounded a suspect. The court reasoned that law enforcement professionals must use firearms from time to time, and therefore this incident did “not fall outside of the norm for a small-town police officer.” On the other hand, if a small-town gas station clerk shot and wounded an attempted arm robber in self-defense and later on developed PTSD, that claim could be found to meet the extraordinary stress standard.

Other Factors Relevant to Findings of Extraordinary Stress by Courts

Other factors courts have looked to in finding that an employee has experienced extraordinary stress are:

  1. Whether the worker witnessed firsthand a catastrophic or fatal work injury of another employee;
  2. Whether the worker is or feels responsible or guilty for causing a catastrophic or fatal injury to another;
  3. Whether an employee has experienced prolonged and severe psychological or verbal abuse from coworkers or supervisors.

Unlike a fractured arm or herniated spinal disc, mental injuries cannot be spotted with an X-ray or MRI. Likely because mental injuries cannot be seen with the human eye, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has declared that mental injury claims “should be examined with caution and carefulness because of the danger inherent of malingering in such cases.” Therefore, while mental injuries can be as severe as physical injuries, it is important to keep in mind the inherent skepticism Wisconsin courts have when assessing mental injury claims.

Contact Hawks Quindel

If you have been formally diagnosed with a psychological condition as a result of an extremely stressful experience at work, contact Hawks Quindel’s experienced worker’s compensation attorneys for a free evaluation of your claim.

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Brandon Jubelirer