Stressing the Reasonable Objective — Missouri Supreme Court Provides Clarity on When Mental Injuries Will be Compensable

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The Missouri Supreme Court recently acted to provide clear parameters for when an employee will be entitled to recover for stress-related psychiatric disorders.

Linda Mantia worked for the Missouri Department of Transportation for over 20 years providing traffic control and assistance at motor vehicle accident scenes on Missouri highways. Mantia responded to accident scenes as often as four times per week, including serious accidents involving fatalities. Mantia was diagnosed with depression in February 2008 and filed a workers’ compensation claim for mental injuries in October 2008.

Under Missouri law, a mental injury is compensable only if it is demonstrated by the employee that the stress causing the mental injury is work related and was “extraordinary and unusual.” Prior to Mantia’s case, there was not a framework to determine how to measure whether the stress was “extraordinary and unusual.”

The Missouri Supreme Court began its analysis by noting that to recover a claimant must demonstrate “by objective standards and actual events” the amount of work stress endured was both “work related and was extraordinary and unusual.” The Ccurt started by providing a definition for the “objective standards” to be used. The court held that the objective standard for determining whether an employee’s stress was compensable is whether the same or similar actual work events would cause a reasonable worker extraordinary and unusual stress. An employee may provide that evidence by introducing testimony of other workers as to the circumstances that are experienced as part of the job in general, however, individualized subjective reactions to those circumstances are irrelevant.

Once that baseline of evidence is provided, the employee must show that the actual events the employee experienced were such that a reasonable employee would experience extraordinary and unusual stress. Most commonly, a claimant will meet this standard by comparing the claimant’s stress levels with stress faced by other employees in the same profession.

The Supreme Court ultimately remanded Mantia’s case for development of the record as to whether her stress of was “extraordinary and unusual” in accordance with the new parameters set out by the court.

Moving forward, employers now can better prepare their defense of stress-related mental injury claims. Employees will now be required to not only show that they are suffering from a stress-related mental injury due to their employment, but also that the specific stress that employee suffered would be sufficient to cause a theoretical “reasonable employee” to experience extraordinary and unusual stress. This shifts the focus of the inquiry from the particular symptoms of the claimant to a more detailed examination of the claimant’s work experiences. This will make investigation of stress-related mental injury claims paramount as employers will need to obtain sufficient factual information regarding the particular stresses faced by that employee in order to provide that information to their retained expert that conducts an evaluation of the employee.

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