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Psychological injuries from youth resident assault compensable

Posted On: Aug. 20, 2019 12:22 PM CST

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A worker’s psychological injuries that he attributed to an assault at work are compensable, a special workers compensation appeals panel of the Supreme Court of Tennessee in Nashville held Friday.

In Natchez Trace Youth Academy v. Tidwell, the three-judge appellate panel affirmed a trial court’s disability finding and monetary award to the employee, who was injured by a youth living at the residential treatment facility where he worked.

Christopher Tidwell worked as a youth service officer for Natchez Trace Youth Academy in Waverly, Tennessee. On June 28, 2015, he was struck in the face while restraining a resident, receiving an injury that eventually required him to have plastic surgery. An investigation into the incident revealed that a pushpin or thumbtack had been used by the student who punched Mr. Tidwell in the face.

After taking a week off after the incident, he returned to light duty work with the understanding that he would not be required to interact with the residents. However, during several shifts, staff had not arrived to replace him and he was required to wake up the children, which caused him to hyperventilate on one occasion because he said he was worried one of the residents “could blindside” him again.

Mr. Tidwell was treated for anxiety and depression as well as for his injury, and sought workers compensation benefits for both physical and psychological injures. He said he did not believe he could return to a position that required him to work with troubled youth, or to his prior job in a factory because he said the incident made him unable to “get along with people.”

Although he had been released for full duty work without restrictions, he did not contact the academy before the facility considered him to have abandoned his position. However, conflicting evidence exists over whether he was released for duty or whether the physician said that he was released physically but also needed to be cleared by a psychiatrist, according to court documents.

A state trial court concluded that Mr. Tidwell suffered an injury and developed depression and PTSD as a result of the incident and concluded that evidence showed that he required a psychiatric evaluation before returning to work. The court awarded him nearly $100,000 in disability as well as additional unpaid temporary total disability benefits and discretionary costs.

The high court’s appeals panel affirmed the trial court’s ruling with the exception of the award of discretionary costs, which it reversed.

Although the academy argued that Mr. Tidwell failed to make a meaningful return to work, the court noted that he had made a brief return to work within a week or two of his injury with the caveat of limiting his interaction with the residents, and that his physician indicated that Mr. Tidwell should not return to work until released by a psychiatrist.

The academy also argued that the trial court erred in determining that Mr. Tidwell suffered a compensable psychiatric injury, but the panel disagreed, noting that the trial court held that Mr. Tidwell’s testimony was credible, and that medical evidence supported the trial court’s finding.

The court did, however, reversed the trial court’s finding on discretionary costs for expert witness fees, holding that the court’s award violated the Tennessee workers compensation fee schedule for expert witness depositions.

Attorneys in the case did not immediately respond to requests for comment.