The sirens wail as first responder James McAlister races toward the scene of a horrific accident. Having devoted more than a decade of his life to saving others, he’s seen his share of tragedy. But this time, the carnage is too much. He works frantically to save as many lives as possible, but not everyone involved in the crash can be saved.
The images of the victims and the sounds of their pleas for help haunt James long after the accident scene has been cleared. Nightmares become commonplace, and he is soon diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The accomplished first responder now grapples with the reality that his mental injury has made it impossible for him to work, and he wonders if the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act will provide any relief.
Prevalence of mental injuries in Alabama
Roughly 51.5 million adults are currently experiencing mental illness in the United States. According to the National Center for PTSD, a branch of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, seven to eight percent of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point in their lives.
Unfortunately, Alabamans have not been spared from mental injury. According to the most recent report prepared by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:
- Approximately 816,000 adults in Alabama (21.4 percent of the state’s adult population) experienced a mental illness in the past year.
- Approximately 210,000 adults in Alabama (5.5. percent of the state’s adult population) experienced a major depressive episode in the past year.
Mental injuries don’t just impact first responders; these injuries can impact everyone, from office workers to construction laborers. In light of the seriousness of mental health issues and the impact they can have on a person’s ability to work, it’s essential to understand if and when mental injuries are compensable under the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act.
Are mental injuries compensable under the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act?
The Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act provides a comprehensive framework for compensating workers who are injured on the job. Generally speaking, the Act covers medical expenses, lost wages, and vocational rehabilitation for injured workers. However, the Act has specific requirements and exclusions when it comes to mental injuries.
There are two types of mental injuries under the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act:
- Mental-physical injuries: A mental-physical injury refers to a mental injury that results from a physical injury sustained at work, such as depression that develops as a result of chronic pain caused by a workplace accident.
- Mental-mental injuries: A mental-mental injury refers to a mental injury that arises from a psychological stimulus, such as PTSD that arises after witnessing a traumatic event at work.
In Alabama, mental-physical injuries are compensable under the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act so long as the mental injury can be directly traced back to a work-related physical injury. Notably, the physical injury doesn’t have to be the sole cause of the mental injury, but the physical injury must be a factor in causing the mental injury.
Mental-mental injuries, on the other hand, are not compensated. Under existing workers’ compensation law, mental illnesses, such as PTSD, are not covered if a physical injury does not accompany the mental illness.
A number of bills have been introduced—as recently as 2022—that would require certain benefits to be made available to first responders suffering from work-related PTSD, but so far, none of these bills have passed.
Ex parte Vongsouvanh, 795 So.2d 625 (Ala. 2000)
Jimmy Vongsouvanh was a welder employed by Steel Processors when he sustained several injuries in an automobile accident.
While traveling to a work site in New Jersey, Jimmy lost control of the van he was driving and hit a tree. He, along with his coworker and passenger, Eric Dickson, was pinned in the vehicle for three to four hours. Eric died as a result of the accident.
The accident caused Jimmy both physical and mental injuries, which impaired his ability to perform his job as a welder. More specifically, Jimmy was diagnosed with depression, chronic-pain syndrome, status-post-motor-vehicle-accident with traumatic injuries, and reflex sympathetic dystrophy secondary to the accident. According to his psychiatrist, Jimmy is totally and permanently disabled as a result of the injuries he incurred as a result of the accident.
Steel Processors didn’t dispute Jimmy’s physical injuries, but they challenged the compensability of his mental disorders.
After hearing the case, the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled that because Jimmy’s physical injuries contributed, and continue to contribute, to Jimmy's mental disorders, Jimmy is entitled to PTSD benefits.
The Court further noted that if it’s later determined that Jimmy has been completely relieved of the physical pain caused by the injuries he received in the accident but that he still has a mental illness, then compensation for the mental injuries may no longer be appropriate.
Filing a workers’ compensation claim in Alabama
If you’re injured at work, it’s important to complete all of the following steps to file a claim:
- Report the accident. Alabama law requires that you report your workplace injury to your manager or supervisor within 5 days of sustaining the injury. Although you may think your employer is aware of the injury, it’s a good idea to provide written notice within 5 days to avoid any confusion. If you miss the 5-day deadline, you should still provide notice as soon as possible. In some rare instances, this 5-day deadline can be extended (although if you provide notice more than 90 days after your injury, your claim will almost certainly be denied regardless of your situation).
- Seek medical attention. In Alabama, your employer selects the doctor who will treat your condition, so be sure to check in with your employer right away to find out where you can go for treatment.
- File a First Report of Injury Form. Once you report your injury, it’s your employer's responsibility to file a First Report of Injury Form. This form includes information about your injury and how it occurred. It also includes information about your wages. If your employer refuses to file the form, you should contact an Alabama workers’ compensation attorney or the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Ombudsman Program.
It would be nice if workers’ compensation claims always went smoothly and workers always received the benefits they deserve, but unfortunately, this is not the reality. If you’ve been injured in a work-related accident, consider reaching out to an attorney to discuss your legal options and to ensure you receive the benefits you deserve.