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Trooper who killed woman in car accident due workers comp: Court

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A Pennsylvania state trooper who accidentally hit and killed a woman with his patrol car should receive workers compensation benefits for psychological injuries that he suffered from the tragic event, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said in a split ruling last week.

Philip Payes was driving his Pennsylvania State Police patrol vehicle in November 2006 when a woman dressed in black clothes and a black hat stepped in front of his car at about 5:45 a.m., court records show. The woman flipped across the car and landed on the road.

Mr. Payes gave the woman mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while simultaneously attempting to divert highway traffic away from him and the woman, records show. The woman, who later was found to have suffered from mental illness, was pronounced dead at the scene.

The Pennsylvania State Police allowed Mr. Payes to take a leave from work until January 2007 and to be assigned to office duties upon his return, records show. But four days after his return, Mr. Payes said he had recurring anxiety and stress that prevented him from performing his job. He did not return to work after that week.

Mr. Payes applied for workers comp benefits and was denied twice by his employer, records show. The department agreed to pay for treatment that Mr. Payes received after being exposed to the accident victim's blood, but denied that Mr. Payes suffered an injury that would allow disability benefits to be paid to him.

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A Pennsylvania workers comp judge awarded benefits to Mr. Payes in 2008 based on testimony from a psychiatrist and a psychologist who said he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from the accident, records show. The judge also found that Mr. Payes' accident was an “abnormal working condition” that resulted in a compensable mental injury.

The Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Appeals Board reversed that ruling, saying that Mr. Payes' “stressful and perilous profession” meant that “encounters involving fatalities were a foreseeable part of the job,” records show. The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court affirmed the board's decision.

In a 5-1 ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision. The majority found that Mr. Payes experienced an “extraordinarily unusual and distressing single work-related event” that created a compensable mental-mental injury and disability under Pennsylvania workers comp law.

The workers comp judge “found, based on evidence of record that was not challenged on appeal, that this single incident occurred while (Mr. Payes) was performing his duties as a state trooper,” the majority opinion reads. “Therefore, had (Mr. Payes) suffered physical injuries as a result of the incident, there would have been no question that his physical injuries and resulting disability would have been covered under the Act.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice J. Michael Eakin said that Mr. Payes' accident was “unquestionably traumatic,” but not an abnormal working condition that created a compensable injury.

“Law enforcement officers potentially face life-and-death situations every day,” Judge Eakin's dissent reads. “Confrontations, injuries, blood, death, and other frightening events are unfortunate, but necessarily a daily part of their work. While the specifics of every event they may face obviously cannot be anticipated, the fact there will be such events is certainly foreseeable.”