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Workers comp benefits upheld for nurse after series of patient attacks

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A nurse who said she suffered a complete loss of earning power after a series of patient attacks should receive workers compensation benefits for her psychological injuries, the Nebraska Supreme Court has ruled.

Kimberly L. Hynes worked as a registered nurse in the mental health unit at Good Samaritan Hospital in Kearney, Nebraska, court records show. In April 2008, a patient “whipped” Ms. Hynes with a large vacuum cleaner cord and punched her in the jaw.

Ms. Hynes discussed the incident several times with an employee assistance program counselor, saying that she had difficulty eating and sleeping after the assault, and had been suffering from nightmares and feelings of hopelessness, according to court filings.

In June 2008, Ms. Hynes told the counselor that she was assaulted by another patient who kicked her and bit her on the arm, records show. She reported suffering panic attacks, loss of appetite, general anxiety and depression after that incident.

In July 2008, Ms. Hynes told the counselor that a male adolescent patient grabbed her and made “extremely aggressive” sexual comments to her. Later that month, Ms. Hynes made a late-night call to the counselor to report that she was having suicidal thoughts and feelings of hopelessness, according to filings.

Records show Ms. Hynes was admitted in July 2008 for nearly a month of inpatient psychiatric care, and she was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. She was then readmitted for psychiatric care multiple times between September 2008 and March 2009, and began receiving electroconvulsive therapy three times a week.

Ms. Hynes filed for workers comp benefits in April 2009, contending in court filings that her mental injuries occurred during her employment and left her unable to work. Good Samaritan denied injuries related to Ms. Hynes' second and third attacks, saying that she suffered no physical injuries other than being whipped by the vacuum cord.

The Nebraska Workers' Compensation Court ruled in Ms. Hynes' favor, finding that she suffered a compensable accident when she was hit with the vacuum cord and that the second and third attacks added to her injuries. The court reasoned that the three assaults produced “the totality of mental illness” that Ms. Hynes suffered, leaving her with a permanent partial disability and a complete loss of earning power.

The court ordered Good Samaritan to pay $578.14 in weekly temporary total disability benefits for 142 5/7 weeks, as well as $644 per week as long as Ms. Hynes remained permanently and totally disabled, records show. The hospital also was ordered to pay Ms. Hynes' past and future medical bills.

Good Samaritan appealed directly to the Nebraska Supreme Court, which unanimously upheld Ms. Hynes' benefits on Friday.

Nebraska workers comp law requires mental health claims to be related to or caused by physical injuries. While Ms. Hynes did not receive medical treatment for physical injuries in the second and third patient attacks, the state Supreme Court found that those incidents “aggravated or cumulatively added” to the physical and mental trauma that Ms. Hynes suffered in the vacuum cord attack.

“There is no indication that Hynes experienced symptoms of PTSD, major depressive disorder, or any other significant psychiatric problems in the 15 years prior to the initial assault in April 2008. Nor did she have any issues related to substance abuse in the decade prior to her injuries,” the ruling reads. “Hynes required extensive treatment following the three incidents, including electroconvulsive therapy, which … is 'a treatment option of last resort for Major Depressive Disorders.' We find sufficient evidence to support the court's determination that Hynes' injuries arose as a result of her work-related accident.”