Cutler Law Firm, P.C.

The Legal Causation Test for Mental-Mental Injuries for First Responders

In Iowa, an employee can receive workers’ compensation benefits for a purely “mental/mental” injury, i.e., a mental injury without an accompanying physical injury. To recover, the employee must show: (1) that the mental condition was in fact caused by employment-related activities (medical causation), and (2) that the mental injury resulted from workplace stress of a greater magnitude than the day-to-day mental stresses experienced by other workers employed in the same or similar jobs, regardless of their employer (legal causation). When the mental injury is “based on a manifest happening of a sudden traumatic nature from an unexpected cause or unusual strain” (for instance, a convenience store clerk being robbed at gunpoint), the legal causation standard is met regardless of the absence of similar stress on other employees.

In Tripp v. Scott Emergency Communication Center, No. 21-0841 (Iowa June 3, 2022), the Iowa Supreme Court addressed the legal causation test for mental/mental injuries in the context of first responders. The employee was a 911 dispatcher who took a call from a woman who was screaming over and over at a high pitch, “Help me, help me, my baby is dead.” The call lasted for longer than two minutes, and she soon heard from officers at the scene that a dead infant had been found who had apparently been killed with a claw hammer. The employee developed PTSD from the call and was unable to return to work as a dispatcher. The commissioner denied workers’ compensation benefits, concluding that Tripp had failed to satisfy the test of legal causation because 911 dispatchers routinely take calls involving death and traumatic injury, and the mother’s harrowing call thus wasn’t an “unexpected cause or unusual strain.”

The Iowa Supreme Court reversed and awarded benefits. The Court said that by focusing on the employee’s own job in determining an “unexpected strain,” the commissioner had placed workers routinely tasked with addressing traumatic incidents such as emergency dispatchers, paramedics, police officers, and firefighters in a disfavored position as compared with other workers. Emergency responders would have to prove “hyper-unexpected causes and hyper-unusual strains—some extraordinary species of traumatic event, above and beyond the perilous events that they regularly confront—to qualify for benefits that those in less hazardous professions receive by meeting a far lower bar.” The Court held that for mental injuries based on a manifest happening of a sudden traumatic nature from an unexpected cause or unusual strain, legal causation is established without regard to the regular duties of the particular employee or other employees in similar positions. To hold otherwise would set different baselines for workers’ compensation eligibility—one for emergency responders, and one for everyone else.

As always, please feel free to contact any of our attorneys for questions regarding this or any other workers’ compensation issues.

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