Our Firm Wins Precedent-Setting Case For First Responders
In a big win for employees, an appeals court recently sided with an emergency medical technician (EMT) represented by our law firm who sought workers’ compensation insurance benefits after she suffered employment related post-traumatic stress (PTSD). A lower court sided with the employer, but upon review the appeals court found multiple errors in their reasoning.
This precedent setting case is important as it sets the standard for those in similar situations.
How did it start?
The case began when Mandy Lynn Wyatt took a position as an emergency medical technician (EMT) with Polk County Fire Rescue in 2015. During her time on-the-job, she was called to respond to a number of horrific accidents involving women and children. In 2016 she responded to a domestic violence call where a woman was badly beaten and later died at the hospital. In 2017 she responded to two cardiac arrest calls for infants and a car accident involving a woman who, after wrecking her car, removed her child from the vehicle and attempted to drown him in a nearby pond. In 2018 Ms. Wyatt responded to a catastrophic car accident and comforted a two-year-old child, helping to remove brain matter from the child’s hair. The brain matter belonged to the child’s five-year-old sibling who died in the crash.
Not surprisingly, these scenes led to nightmares and flashbacks and evolved into depression after responding to the incidents involving children. Ms. Wyatt began seeing a therapist but in 2018 her PTSD was so severe she was forced to resign from her position.
About five months after leaving her position, Ms. Wyatt filed a petition for benefits. In addition to disability payments, medical care, and treatment of the PTSD, she also sought indemnity. Florida state law allows for two types of disability: medical and indemnity. Medical covers the cost to treat the disease or injury and indemnity refers to cash payments for lost wages.
What was the issue?
The insurance provider and employer denied the benefit claim. They stated that Ms. Wyatt was trying to use a provision within workers’ compensation law that did not apply to her case. This relatively recently added provision sets out a different standard for first responders like EMTs and paramedics to receive benefits for mental work injuries.
How is this different than traditional workers’ comp claims?
In traditional claims, the court generally requires a worker establish the mental injury, such as PTSD, was the result of a physical injury. The Florida Legislature made a change in 2018 that allows first responders to file a claim for PTSD without suffering a physical injury. This provision also allows for the court to grant indemnity as well as medical benefits for these types of cases.
To prove PTSD for workers’ comp purposes under this provision, the worker must show that the PTSD resulted from one or more of the following events:
- Seeing a deceased minor;
- Witnessing the death of a child;
- Witnessing injury to a child that led to their death on the way to or at the hospital;
- Seeing a body or witnessing a death where the death was the result of serious bodily harm that would shock the conscience, including suicide. This includes those who the responder saw alive, but the victim later died in transit to or at the hospital.
To have success under this provision, the worker must show that one of the above events led to the PTSD. This can require a diagnosis and testimony from a medical professional.
In this case, the employer agreed that the Ms. Wyatt’s PTSD was the result of her experiences while on-the-job. Since both parties agreed, they did not need to dive into this question any further. Instead, the employer argued that her case did not qualify because the timing was wrong.
How does the timing matter?
The workers’ compensation system is essentially a contract between the employer, employee, and insurance provider. Although not an official contract, this concept helps guide the courts when analyzing these claims. In this situation, the contract goes into effect when an employee suffers an injury.
The question here was when does someone suffer an injury when the injury is PTSD? The employer argued the injury occurred at the date of the traumatic event. If so, then the contract began before the passage of the first responder provision in 2018, as noted above. That would mean Ms. Wyatt would not qualify for indemnity.
Ms. Wyatt and her team disagreed. They argue that previous case law shows that the date of injury is when the individual can no longer work. Here, she argues that date was her last day at work. If successful, this falls after the passage of the first responder provision and she would qualify for full benefits, medical and indemnity.
What did the court decide?
The appeals court agreed with Ms. Wyatt and stated that injury for these purposes occurs when the worker can no longer receive their wage. The appeals court sent the case back to the lower court to compute the appropriate wage and medical award.
Why is this case important?
This case provides a deep dive into how the courts will apply the first responder provision. It provides guidance for those who go through similar events.