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PSYCHIATRIC AND MENTAL INJURIES

Section 12 provides for compensation to employees for injuries producing partial or total disability which includes psychiatric injuries. Sections 30 through 35 cover occupational disease claims which would allow for recovery for a compensable psychiatric occupational disease claim. Psychiatric claims can be divided into two types. The first is the psychiatric claim arising from a traumatic or occupational physical injury such as the possible depression which would accompany the amputation of a portion of the body or a psychiatric reaction to traumatic event such as witnessing the death of a co-worker. The Courts have routinely awarded psychiatric benefits both by way of payment of medical benefits and compensation benefits for those types of claims.

The second type of psychiatric claim would be a psychiatric claim based upon job stress. The same rules that apply to traumatic and occupational physical injury claims also apply to claims involving stress or other psychiatric disorders resulting in mental illness. The petitioner must prove that the psychiatric injury arose out of and in the course of employment and must satisfy the statutory definitions for an injury and disability and must prove a causal connection between the injury and the employment.

There is a general agreement that if a workers' compensation injury produces a physical disability and also, in turn, produces some mental trauma, the full disability is compensable even if it aggravates a prior pre-existing psychiatric condition. In a claim based solely on stress, our Court system has adopted a rule different than the normal workers' compensation standard that an employer takes an individual as he finds him. In its place, the Supreme Court adopted a "reasonable man" standard to analyze stress claims. Two leading cases in New Jersey are Saunderlin v. E.I. DuPont, 102 N.J. 402 (1986), and Goyden v. State of New Jersey, 256 N.J. Super. 438 (App. Div. 1991). In Saunderlin, the Supreme Court determined that for a claimant's mental condition to be compensable, the working conditions must be stressful, when viewed objectively, to support the finding that the claimant suffered a compensable injury. In addition, the stressful working conditions must be peculiar to a particular work place and there must be objective evidence supporting the medical opinion of resulting psychiatric disability in addition to the bare statement of the claimant. In Goyden, the Court addressed the issue of the competency and the sufficiency of proof necessary to establish an occupational disease. The Court required "good psychiatry" and not just the mere parroting of complaints. Psychiatric disability need not be evidenced by symptoms of physical disability. The statutory definition of Section 36, which requires demonstrable objective medical evidence to support the existence of permanent partial disability applies to psychiatric disability claims.

Normally, most psychiatric claims have their genesis in the effect traumatic work related injury affecting the physical body of the petitioner. This may be caused by an accidental injury or an occupational disease. Usually, there is a physical injury that accompanies the psychiatric disability and is usually the basis for that psychiatric disability. However, some psychiatric injuries have no physical component. In the case of Brunell v. Wildwood Crest Police Dep't., 176 N.J. 225, (2003), Petitioner, Diana Brunell, was employed by respondent, Wildwood Crest Police Department, as a civilian police dispatcher.   On June 2, 1995, she dispatched Officer Eugene Miglio to the scene of a vehicle stop.   A scuffle ensued, during which the suspect struck Officer Miglio on the chest.   As a result, Officer Miglio suffered a cardiac arrest and died later that night.   Although Brunell did not witness the incident directly, in addition to sending Miglio to the scene of his death, she called for medical assistance, informed and consoled other members of the police department, and arranged for notification of Officer Miglio's widow.   Immediately after the incident, Brunell suffered "symptoms of anxiety, depression, nightmares, irritability, fatigue, insomnia, and exaggerated startle response."   She became more tense as time passed. In 1999, she was diagnosed with PTSD as the direct result of Officer Miglio's death in 1995. The Township of Wildwood Crest, did not deny the relationship between the petitioner's exposure to stressful situations at work in the development of her PTSD. The respondent argued that the petitioner failed to report the accident in a timely fashion as required by the New Jersey Worker's Compensation Act.

The Supreme Court concluded otherwise. The court found that because the Workers' Compensation Act does not contemplate notice or the filing of a claim in the absence of injury, those time periods do not begin to run until the worker is, or reasonably should be, aware that he has sustained a compensable injury. This is often referred to as the "discovery rule." Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may qualify as either an "accidental injury" or an "occupational disease," depending on the circumstances. When PTSD is an "accidental injury," time limitations set forth in the Act will not begin to run until the worker knows or should know he sustained a compensable injury.

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