Sharing Lunch with Alleged Tormentor Undermines Workplace Anxiety Charges

Frank Ferreri

Spokane, WA (WorkersCompensation.com) – Breaking bread together has a way of healing tensions, but as a Washington case recently showed, it can also contradict claims of a workplace injury.

When a medical center pharmacy technician shared his lunch with a coworker shortly after an allegedly traumatic incident between the two, it left the technician’s workers’ compensation claim on shaky ground in PeaceHealth v. Douangmany, No. 80897-4-I (Wash. Ct. App. 11/09/20, unpublished).

General Stress

The technician was mixing chemotherapy drugs and couldn’t get a drug out of a vial because he was using the wrong tool. When he asked the coworker for help, the coworker told him he had already shown him which one to use and, allegedly, hit the technician “lightly on the back of the head.”

Although the technician and coworker had a “friendly relationship” and “regularly high-fived, fist-bumped, and joked with each other,” the technician reported that the head-tapping incident made him feel “afraid and embarrassed.” Nonetheless, on the day in question, the two had lunch together, and the technician shared his food with the coworker.

Allegedly, the incident caused the technician to have trouble sleeping, so he went to his doctor. The doctor diagnosed the technician with anxiety and attributed his headaches, dizziness, neck pains, and “feeling a negative mood” to stressors that included his wife’s chronic illness and his son’s absence to play competitive hockey.

A neurologist examined the technician and concluded that the technician had an adjustment disorder, mixed anxiety, and depressed mood. The neurologist attributed these issues to the “general stress” of the technician’s workplace environment.

The technician filed an application for workers’ compensation benefits. The state’s labor department rejected the claim and ordered the technician to repay the medical center for provisional benefits he had already received.

Following two visits with doctors who attributed the technician’s mental health challenges to the incident at issue, the technician appealed the department’s ruling. The appeals judge found in the technician’s favor, prompting the medical center to appeal to court. At trial, a jury found in the center’s favor, ruling that the technician had not experienced an industrial injury.

The technician appealed the jury’s ruling. Under Washington law, an “industrial injury” is “a sudden and tangible happening, of a traumatic nature, producing an immediate or prompt result.”

Multiple Stressors

The appeals court highlighted that evidence showed that the technician’s symptoms flowed from multiple stressors in his life, including family issues involving his wife and son. Although two doctors attributed the technician’s challenges to the workplace incident, “the jury was not obligated to agree with their conclusions.”

Instead, the court noted that the jury sided with the technician’s regular doctor and concluded that this doctor “was better positioned to make such a determination than was a psychiatrist who evaluated [the technician] only once, many months after the fact.”

Additionally, the court reasoned that “rational and fair-minded jurors” could conclude that the contact in question was “light and playful,” given the nature of the technician’s relationship with his coworker.

Thus, the appeals court concluded that the jury didn’t veer from legal standards under Washington law in deciding that no workplace injury occurred, and it affirmed the ruling in the medical center’s favor.

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