Matthews v. Indus. Comm’n of Ariz. (7/9/2021)

September 27, 2021

Arizona Court of Appeals Division Two holds that A.R.S. § 23-1043.01(B) is not an unconstitutional limitation of compensable injuries when it provides that workers’ mental injuries must arise from an unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary situation to be compensable.

A police officer was hired by a city, received months of training, passed physical and psychological examinations, and signed an acknowledgment his duties would include responding to death scenes and handling body parts.  Ten years later, he was promoted to detective, and seven years after that, joined the domestic violence unit.  Shortly thereafter, in June 2018, the officer responded to a domestic violence scene where a man had barricaded himself in the garage.  Gunshots were heard, and the man crawled out with a wound in the chest, and died.  The police officer was assigned to inspect the body and photograph the scene.  In September 2018, the officer filed a workers’ claim for an injury based on a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) arising from the June 2018 incident.  The insurer denied the claim.  At a hearing before an ALJ, the city put on evidence that the June 2018 incident was not unanticipated, extraordinary, or unusual, but was part of the job.  The officer testified that the June 2018 incident was just one of several events that lead to PTSD.  The ALJ found the claim noncompensable because it was not an unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary stress situation, and did not consider prior incidents because the officer had not filed a gradual injury claim.  The officer filed a special action.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.  Under A.R.S. § 23-1043.01(B), a mental injury claim is not compensable unless the injury was “unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary.”  The evidence reasonably supported the ALJ’s conclusion because both the city and the officer’s experts testified that the June 2018 incident was not atypical.  

The officer also argued that A.R.S. § 23-1043.01(B) was unconstitutional because it allows an assumption of risk defense and impermissibly restricts causation in violation of Article XVIII, § 8, which provides for compensation for “any accident arising out of and in the course of” employment that is “caused in whole or in part, or is contributed to, by a necessary risk or danger of such employment.”  The court of appeals rejected the argument that the statute impermissibly injected an assumption of risk defense, but rather simply placed a particular burden of proof on some claimants due to the difficulty of proving causation of mental injuries.  It further held that the Arizona constitution did not contemplate compensation for mental injuries, so a statute providing for compensable mental injuries necessarily expanded rather than restricted the scope of compensable accidents.

Dissenting, Judge Eckerstrom argued that the plain language of the constitution neither exempted mental injuries nor allowed injuries to be deemed non-compensable because they were not unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary.

Presiding Judge Espinosa delivered the opinion of the court.  Judge Eppich concurred. Judge Eckerstrom dissented.