Workers’ Compensation — Can You Recover for Stress Caused by Work-Related Attacks?

Workers’ Compensation Claims—Emotional Injury Caused by Work-Related Violence or Attacks

In December, 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a ruling requiring the a lower court to revisit a workers’ compensation claim filed by a liquor store manager who sought benefits for psychological trauma he says resulted from being the victim of an armed robbery on the job. The state’s high court concluded that what happened to the claimant (having a gun held to his head and being duct-taped to a chair) could not be described as “normal working conditions.” Under Pennsylvania law, a worker may not recover benefits for any emotional injury stemming from “normal working conditions.”

The claimant, Gregory Kochanowicz,  was a manager at a state liquor store in Morrisville on April 28, 2008, when a masked gunman entered the store, held a gun to the manager’s head, and demanded that he open the safe. Kochanowicz remained at gunpoint while the assailant used duct tape to restrain him and a female employee. Though he had worked in the state liquor store system for more than 30 years, Kochanowicz had never been the victim of an armed robbery before. He subsequently filed a workers’ compensation claim, alleging that he had nightmares, could not sleep, and could not return to work, as he experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. His application for benefits was approved and the decision was affirmed by the state Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board.

The state liquor control board appealed to the Commonwealth Court, contending that robberies were “a normal working condition in liquor stores. In support of its appeal, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board introduced evidence that showed that there were nearly 100 armed robberies in state liquor stores during the five-year period preceding Kochanowicz’s experience.  The Commonwealth Court agreed with the liquor control board, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected that argument.

“Normal Working Conditions” Exclusion Not Applicable in New Jersey

New Jersey differs from Pennsylvania—there is no exclusion of workers’ compensation benefits in New Jersey for emotional injury arising out of a workplace attack, based on the argument that such attacks are “normal working conditions” Accordingly, if the same case had been file in New Jersey, there would have been no basis to consider denying the  application for benefits.

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