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Sheena Harrison

State Supreme Court denies Minnesota police officer's PTSD comp claim

March 7, 2014 - 2:56pm


A police officer who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after aiding a victim he personally knew cannot receive workers compensation benefits for his condition because he did not suffer an accompanying physical injury, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

Scott B. Schuette worked as a police officer for the city of Hutchinson, Minn., court records show. In 2005, Mr. Schuette responded to an accident scene at a local high school in which a girl had fallen out of a pick-up truck.

When he arrived at the scene, Mr. Schuette realized that he knew the victim and her family, records show. He performed CPR on the girl — whose injuries are described as “horrific” in court records — and drove her by ambulance to the hospital, where she later died.

Mr. Schuette reported dry heaving and feeling like he was in a daze during the incident, records show. He later reported having mental health problems, including anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance and insomnia.

A doctor diagnosed Mr. Schuette with PTSD in 2008, and 11 health care professionals have concurred with that opinion since then, records show. Mr. Schuette also suffers from chronic back and shoulder pain after a fall he suffered during a nightmare, which one doctor attributed to Mr. Schuette's PTSD.

Mr. Schuette resigned from the Hutchinson police department in 2009 and sought workers comp benefits for his PTSD and “consequential” back and shoulder injuries, records show.

For injuries suffered prior to October 2013, Minnesota workers comp law held that mental conditions must arise out of a physical injury to be compensable. Last year, state workers comp reforms began allowing “mental impairment” and PTSD to be compensable under Minnesota law without a connected physical injury.

In a 2012 hearing before a Minnesota workers comp judge, a clinical neuropsychologist testified that an MRI showed abnormalities in Mr. Schuette's brain and that his PTSD had changed the physical and chemical structure of his brain, records show.

Experts for the city of Hutchinson denied that Mr. Schuette's PTSD had caused physical injuries to his brain, records show. The state workers comp judge ruled that Mr. Schuette's PTSD was not compensable because it “represents a mental disability,” but not a physical injury.

The Minnesota Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the judge's ruling, finding that a “mental injury resulting from mental stimulus” was not compensable under Minnesota's workers comp law, records show. Mr. Schuette appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing that he suffered a compensable injury and that the prior rulings denied him equal protection under state and federal law.

The Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously upheld the denial of Mr. Schuette's workers comp claim. The court said previous Minnesota case law made it clear that the state covers mental injuries that are connected to physical conditions, but not cases “in which mental stimulus produces mental injury.”

The state Supreme Court also noted that physical symptoms related to mental conditions “must be independently treatable physical injuries” in order to be compensable.

The court declined to overturn a 1981 high court ruling, titled Lockwood v. Independent School District, which denied Minnesota workers comp benefits for injuries that caused mental, but not physical harm.

“We are as sensitive today as we were in Lockwood that mental injury caused by mental stimulus ‘is as real as any other kind of disablement,’ ” the ruling reads. “And we continue to recognize that there is an increasingly blurred distinction between physical and mental injuries. But (previous rulings) expressly left to the legislature the ‘major policy determination’ whether to expand the Workers’ Compensation Act to include mental injury caused by mental stimulus.”

 



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