Every state has workers’ compensation laws that protect employees who are injured on the job. The idea is that people who are injured while working should be entitled to monetary payments to help cover their medical bills and part of their lost wages. Workers’ compensation injuries come in many different forms, but common examples include overexertion, slip and falls, being struck by an object, highway incidents, machinery accidents, and repetitive motion injuries. But what about injuries that are caused by mental stress at the workplace? Some states do allow injured employees to collect workers’ compensation for purely mental stress injuries (for example Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)), however South Carolina currently does not. This may be changing soon though as there is a bill in the South Carolina Senate that would make PTSD a compensable injury for first responders under the state’s workers’ compensation laws.
First Responders and Mental Stress Injuries
In South Carolina, first responders (for example, police officers, firefighters, and EMTs) are not currently able to collect workers’ compensation for mental stress experienced on the job that develops into mental health issues. First responders voluntarily put themselves in dangerous situations and often witness gruesome incidents that could easily cause even the toughest person to experience PTSD. These situations cover a wide range of circumstances and can be anything from assisting badly injured people after a car crash to rescuing burn victims from a burning building.
WTOC.com recently published an article in which they interviewed several first response personel about their experiences with on the job exposure to stressful situations that may cause mental injury. One EMT noted that if you work in the field long enough everyone eventually developes demons. Additionally, a firefighter said that not a month goes by when he doesn’t hear about a fellow firefighter who has committed suicide as a result of stress or PTSD issues stemming from events experienced at work. State senators who support South Carolina’s proposed bill argue that these types of issues are prevalent among first responders and that legislation should be in place to help protect them.
South Carolina’s Proposed Workers’ Compensation Legislation
Senators in South Carolina have introduced a bill (S429) that would allow first responders who have suffered PTSD as a result of on the job stress to file for workers’ compensation benefits. It should be noted that Bill S429 is only applicable to PTSD, and does not encompass other stress induced mental health conditions. In order to qualify for workers’ compensation benefits under the proposed law, a first responder would need to be diagnosed as having PTSD by a licensed medical professional, and their PTSD must have been caused by an incident (or possibly by repetitive incidents) that took place while they were working. Further, the proposed legislation makes an important departure from the wording of our state’s current workers’ compensation law because the triggering event would no longer need to be classified as ‘extraordinary or unusual’ in order to qualify.
Proponents of the bill maintain that these changes are necessary in order to afford our state’s first response personnel the help that they deserve if their work has caused PTSD. They also applaud the fact that the proposed bill would allow a person who has only suffered a mental injury to receive workers’ compensation benefits, opposed to South Carolina’s current workers’ compensation law that only compensates for PTSD if the employee’s mental injury was caused by a physical injury.
South Carolina’s Current Workers’ Compensation Law and the Requirement of Being Physically Injured
South Carolina’s current workers’ compensation law, contained in Title 42 – Workers’ Compensation, Chapter 11, is essentially designed to provide compensation for physical injuries. However, the wording of the current law does allow compensation for qualifying psychological disorders, such as mental illness and mental injuries, if they are accompanied by a physical injury. This means that a police officer who was shot in the line of duty and suffered PTSD as a result would likely qualify for workers’ compensation for both injuries. However, if that same police officer was almost shot in the line of duty but was able to dodge the bullet and suffered from PTSD due to the incident he would most likely not be able to receive workers’ compensation benefits for his PTSD because he lacks an accompanying physical injury.
However, there is an important exception to the current law’s physical injury requirement. The exception applies if a mental injury is caused by an employee’s job and meets the criteria listed below:
- The situation that caused the triggering stress was ‘extraordinary and unusual’;
- The mental injury did not arise under normal employer-employee relations; and
- It is medically shown that the stressful employment conditions directly caused the mental harm.
Opposition to the Bill
Although PTSD is now widely recognized as a very real and serious mental condition, there is still opposition to the proposed legislation. WTOC.com reported that some South Carolina senators are concerned that first responders would use the bill as a means to cheat the workers’ compensation system. They fear that first responders would game the system for paid leave by erroneously claiming that they suffer from PTSD. Others are worried about how much workers’ compensation claims based on PTSD would cost the system. The Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office estimates that if the bill is signed into law that first responder claims in South Carolina would rise by 20 percent per year, and would therefore result in a projected increase of $1.7 million.
Proponents of the bill have responded to the opposition’s claims by acknowledging that the bill will cause an increase in workers’ compensation claims, but also argue that this is a price that we should be willing to pay. Some argue that the state of South Carolina will either need to pay now or pay later. In other words, they are suggesting that we can either take on the costs of hiring and training new first responders later when our current workforce can no longer cope with their PTSD, or we can pay now and try to retain the experienced first responders that we already have working across the state.
What Can We Do To Help?
If you are injured while on the job and have questions about your rights under the law, do not hesitate to contact an experienced South Carolina workers’ compensation attorney. The lawyers at the Elrod Pope Law Firm are happy to assist you and can be reached by calling either our Rock Hill office or our Lake Wylie office.
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Thomas E. Pope is a Personal Injury, Wrongful Death, and Medical Malpractice Attorney who practices in Rock Hill, Lake Wylie, and Lancaster, SC. He graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law, and has been practicing law for 31 years now. Thomas E. Pope believes in protecting the injured. Learn more about his experience here.