On June 3, 2022, the Supreme Court of Iowa, in Tripp v. Scott Emergency Communication Center, clarified the standard to be used to determine whether a 911 emergency dispatcher’s mental injury is compensable in workers compensation (WC).
In this case involving an emergency dispatcher diagnosed with PTSD after fielding a traumatic 911 call, the court analyzed Iowa statute 85.3(1), which establishes a worker’s eligibility to receive WC benefits, and two previous decisions by the court regarding the standard for compensability of mental injuries. Reviewing the standard to determine WC eligibility for mental injuries formulated in its 2002 decision in Brown v. Quick Trip Corp., the court found that the standard is met when an employee establishes that the mental injury is “based on a manifest happening of a sudden traumatic nature from an unexpected cause or unusual strain.” The court also found that another standard, noted in its 1995 decision in Dunlavey v. Economy Fire & Casualty Co., which requires employees show that the mental injury resulted from “workplace stress of greater magnitude than the day-to-day mental stresses experienced by other workers employed in the same or similar jobs, regardless of employer,” was not needed for a mental injury that occurred rapidly and traced to a specific sudden event, in contrast to a mental injury alleged to have gradually developed over time.
The court reasoned that under the Brown standard, focusing on the employee’s particular job duties to determine whether an injury causing-incident was an “unexpected strain” places workers routinely tasked with addressing traumatic incidents, such as emergency dispatchers, in a disfavored position as compared with other workers. Thus, the court concluded, in cases in which the mental injury is based on a sudden traumatic event from an unexpected cause or unusual strain, legal causation is established without regard to the regular duties of the particular employee or other employees in similar positions. With this decision, the court reversed a lower court’s ruling denying benefits to the emergency dispatcher.
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