France v. Indus. Comm’n of Ariz. – 3/2/2021

March 8, 2021

Arizona Supreme Court determines that deputy sheriff’s PTSD resulting from a violent encounter while conducting a welfare check is a compensable workers’ compensation claim.

In June 2017, a Gila County deputy sheriff responded to a request for a welfare check on a man who had previously threatened to kill police officers.  When the deputy and his partner arrived at the man’s home, the man burst out of his door, running towards the officers while brandishing a shotgun.  The deputy attempted to retreat but found his exit blocked.  At that point, the deputy and his partner shot the man several times.  The man fell to the ground near the deputy and died. 

The deputy began experiencing psychological issues, never returned to work, and was ultimately diagnosed with PTSD resulting from his encounter with the man.  The deputy filed a workers’ compensation claim based on his diagnosis.

Arizona’s workers’ compensation scheme includes A.R.S. § 23-1043.01(B), which authorizes compensation to employees who suffer mental injuries resulting from “some unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary stress related to [their] employment.”  Despite this statute, the deputy’s employer denied his claim, reasoning that his PTSD was not the result of an “unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary stress” related to his employment.

The deputy sought a hearing with the Industrial Commission of Arizona (“ICA”).  The ICA ALJ denied the deputy’s claim because “the stress of if or when to employ deadly force is a usual, expected, and ordinary part of a” deputy’s duties.  In other words, because lethal encounters were potentially a part of every deputy’s duties, they could not serve as the basis for an award under § 23-10143.01(B).  On appeal, the Arizona Court of Appeals set aside the ICA’s decision.  The Supreme Court vacated that decision but agreed that the ICA had erred and held that the deputy’s PTSD is compensable.

The Court began its analysis by discussing the two categories of mental injury claims that tended to arise under § 23-1043.01(B).  First, there were claims for injuries caused by the cumulative build-up of work-related stress.  These types of claims are non-compensable because they are not tied to a specific event.  The second category, claims based on a single work-related event, generally were compensable.  Whether a claim under this second category was compensable turned on an objective reasonable-person standard that examines the stressfulness of an event from the perspective of someone with the same or similar job duties. T his test focused on the stress imposed, rather than on the worker’s experience of the stress.

With that background in mind, the Court determined that the deputy’s claim was compensable.  The ICA ALJ had focused exclusively on the deputy’s job duties but neglected to analyze the stress imposed on him.  The mere fact that the deputy’s duties involved the possibility of violence did not extinguish his claim.  Instead, the rare nature of the brush with death the deputy experienced, in addition to the fact that the man died in front of the deputy, militated in favor of awarding workers’ compensation.

Justice Gould authored the opinion for a unanimous Court.