Defending Psychological Workers’ Compensation Claims in North Carolina: Part 2 of 4
This is the second article in a four-part series discussing different aspects of workers’ compensation psychological claims in North Carolina, including:
- Part 1: Psychological Claims Resulting from Physical Injury;
- Part 2: Non-Physical Injury by Accident Psychological Claims;
- Part 3: Non-Physical Occupational Disease Psychological Claims; and
- Part 4: Claims Handling Tips for Psychological Workers’ Compensation Claims.
In Part 1 of our series, we discussed psychological claims resulting from physical injuries in workers’ compensation cases. In this article, we will address psychological workers’ compensation claims that do not arise from a physical injury.
Non-Physical Injury By Accident Psychological Claims
Over the last several years, the increase in non-physical psychological workers’ compensation claims matches an overall increase in anxiety and depression in members of the general public. Nevertheless, true psychological claims, without a precipitating physical component, are much harder for a plaintiff to prove. The North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act allows for recovery of psychological and mental disorders which are proven to be an “occupational disease” or the result of a compensable “injury by accident.” There are two ways to prove that a “mental claim” is compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act:
- Claiming that a discrete stressful event resulted in an injury by accident; and
- Asserting that the claimant suffers from a stress-related occupational disease under N.C.G.S. § 97-53(13).
The North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act defines an “accident’ as an unlooked for and untoward event which is not expected or designed by the injured employee. Davis v. Raleigh Rental Ctr., 58 N.C. App. 113, 116, 292 S.E.2d 763, 766 (1982). The essence of an accident is its unusualness and unexpectedness. Id.
The injury by accident theory does not appear as frequently in appellate cases as the occupational disease theory with respect to mental and psychological illnesses. In any event, like the cases brought under the occupational disease theory, the cases brought as injuries by accident have had varying outcomes.
Whether a psychological impairment should be considered a compensable injury by accident depends heavily on the underlying facts of each specific case. The “incident” that leads to the alleged psychological impairment must be unusual and not part of the employee’s normal work routine.
For example, Courts have held that a performance review, or a routine, problem-solving meeting is an ordinary incidence of employment, and a nervous breakdown and stress-induced anxiety following thereafter does not constitute an injury by accident. Pitillo v. N.C. Dep’t of Envtl. Health and Natural Res., 151 N.C. App. 641, 566 S.E.2d 807 (2002). On the other hand, being falsely accused of stealing from the company was considered unusual and rose to level of an accident. See Bursell v. Gen. Elec. Co., 172 N.C. App. 73, 616 S.E.2d 342 (2005).
These claims are also subject to an analysis of pre-existing conditions and often require expert medical testimony. Expert witnesses must give an opinion to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the medical condition and accident are related. It is not sufficient to say that just because the medical condition was absent before the injury, but was present thereafter, that the two are linked.
Non-physical psychological workers’ compensation claims are not as straightforward as psychological claims directly resulting from a physical injury. The plaintiff still has the burden of proof, and use of expert witness testimony can assist in determining whether the psychological impairment should be considered a compensable injury.