What Do You Think: Did Coworker’s Screaming, Profanity Cause Industrial Injury?

Frank Ferreri

Spokane, WA (WorkersCompensation.com) – Some people have bad coworkers, and some people have coworkers so bad they can’t work anymore.

But, as a Washington court recently had to decide, can stress a coworker causes support a workers’ compensation claim?

An administrative assistant for a communications company reported that a coworker routinely screamed, used profanity, and lashed out at her without provocation. Allegedly, this coworker also “stomped around the office” and slammed doors.

The assistant attempted to address the coworker directly and sought assistance from her supervisor. However, the assistant reported that she “felt trapped” and was “very upset nearly all the time.” Feeling like she constantly was in “fight or flight” mode and that her ability to function was declining, she sought medical treatment.

The assistant’s doctor put her on medical leave, and the company terminated her two days later.

The assistant sought workers’ compensation benefits resulting from “work conditions/environment that included repeated exposure to psychological abuse due to continual workplace violence.” The application listed diagnoses as depression with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.

The state’s labor department denied the claim, reasoning that the assistant’s condition was not the result of an industrial injury and was not an occupational disease.

The assistant appealed to the review board and presented evidence from her therapist and a psychologist indicating that workplace stress caused a “disabling worsening” of her OCD symptoms as well as her stressor-related disorder.

Two other doctors testified before the board, also indicating that the workplace trauma the assistant allegedly experienced contributed to psychological and physiological changes in brain function. Nonetheless, the board upheld the decision in favor of the company, agreeing that the assistant’s conditions were excluded from coverage.

The assistant appealed to court, where she again came up short. Thus, she appealed to the next level.

Under Washington law, “claims based on mental conditions or mental disabilities caused by stress do not fall within the definition of an occupational disease.” However, a mental health condition may qualify for coverage as an industrial injury “if the condition resulted from a sudden, tangible, and traumatic event.”

Did the assistant experience an industrial injury?

A. Yes. The assistant was exposed to repetitive traumas as each encounter with the coworker was a “sudden, tangible, and traumatic event.”

B. No. Mental health conditions caused by workplace stressors are expressly excluded from occupational disease coverage.

If you chose B, you agreed with the appeals court in Cook-Crist v. Department of Labor & Industries, No. 81325-1-I (Wash. Ct. App. 06/01/21, unpublished), which upheld the previous rulings in the company’s favor.

The court noted that the assistant claimed that her conditions were caused by the “extreme” interpersonal conflict she experienced with the coworker, her supervisor’s failure to address her concerns, and fear that the situation would cause her to lose her job. As a result, the assistant alleged a mental health condition that Washington law excluded from coverage.

In rejecting the assistant’s claim, the court cited a previous case that denied a claim involving post-traumatic stress disorder. In that case, the court held that a series of incidents over a few days didn’t fit the definition of “occupational disease” because the ensuing PTSD didn’t result from a “single sudden traumatic event.”

The court also noted that reported physiological changes to the assistant’s brain didn’t change the nature of her diagnoses.

“It is undisputed that [the assistant’s] alleged violations are mental conditions and that [the assistant’s] experts relied on the DSV in diagnosing them,” the court reasoned.

As a result, the assistant couldn’t escape the law’s bar on coverage for mental health conditions.

This feature does not provide legal advice.

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