A major legal breakthrough came in March 2021 for Arizona first responders suffering from PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition triggered by a specific, terrifying event. You can be affected by PTSD after either experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event and the symptoms of PTSD can last for months or years.
PTSD is significant and can greatly impact a person’s ability to function in their everyday life. For some, mental trauma can result in suicidal tendencies and other lasting mental health conditions.
A first responder has specialized training to provide assistance at the scene of an emergency. Usually, first responders are police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMT) or ambulance crew, paramedics, and others as necessary. A first responder is on the scene of an accident or emergency — by contrast, an emergency department nurse or doctor is considered a second responder.
Because of the nature of their jobs, first responders witness a lot of traumatic events. While they likely become accustomed to seeing the effects of car crashes, fires, and similar events, there are some things that haunt them for far longer.
Arizona police officer seeks compensation for PTSD
In 2017, Gila County Sheriff’s Office sergeant John France was involved in an on-duty shooting. Sgt. France shot and killed a man who was pointing a gun at him and refused to drop it. Sgt. France, who had been on the job for 35 years, was cleared of wrongdoing for an officer-involved shooting.
Sgt. France was conducting a welfare check on a manic veteran when the man stormed at him with a 12-gauge shotgun pointed at Sgt. France’s face. He asked the suspect to drop the gun, and the suspect refused. As he got closer, and the gun grew closer and closer to his own face, Sgt. France made the difficult decision to shoot before he got shot.
Less than one day after the shooting, Sgt. France developed PTSD. Though he’d been a police officer for 35 years, he was thinking about how close he was to the suspect and the impact of his shot on the man’s face. He’d been trained to handle trauma victims, and he knew when he was experiencing symptoms.
Sgt. France wasn’t physically injured, but he needed mental health help. So, he did what most Arizona employees are entitled to do — he filed a workers’ compensation claim for mental health services.
But Sgt. France’s workers’ comp claim was denied.
Sgt. France and his attorney appealed the denial and he was denied again. Arizona law says that workers’ compensation covers mental health injuries if the triggering event is “unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary.” Sgt. France’s lawyer argued that his situation met those criteria but the Arizona Industrial Commission, which oversees workers’ compensation, didn’t accept it.
Sgt. France didn’t give up.
He took his case all the way to the Arizona Court of Appeals. After 2 and a half years of litigation, he won.
Because of Sgt. France’s legal battle, Arizona now provides benefits to first responders suffering from PTSD.
How does the court’s ruling affect future claims?
Based on the ruling in Sgt. France’s case, a first responder in Arizona who experiences symptoms of PTSD can now recover all workers’ compensation benefits to which they would be entitled for any other type of injury.
In other words, a first responder who can get workers’ comp insurance benefits for suffering a broken leg, for instance, can also receive benefits for PTSD if it meets the standards of being unusual, unexpected, or extraordinary. The fact that they’re trained for these kinds of situations does not negate their benefits.
Even a trained and experienced police officer can be traumatized by having a loaded gun pointed at their face, which is what happened to Sgt. France. Most officers don’t come face to face with the business end of a pistol every day, even though they’re trained to deal with dangerous situations. For that reason, Sgt. France’s trauma met the Arizona standard.
When the state Supreme Court makes a new decision or reverses a previous decision, it’s called precedent. Precedent becomes the new law in the absence of a specific law or when there’s a change of old law.
Due to precedent, the France decision now affects all first responders who file for workers’ compensation benefits for PTSD in the future.
The recent France decision was the first case that clarified Arizona’s law regarding workers’ comp benefits for first responders with PTSD. But the first case that actually set the standard for awarding PTSD benefits to first responders was in 2002, David Mogul v. Arizona Department of Public Safety—when I represented the plaintiff.
Is this only applicable to violent events like shootings?
That’s hard to say right now because so far, this is the case that established the law.
Chances are, most first responders expect that their jobs mean aiding people who were severely injured in a car accident or a fire. Generally, their own lives aren’t on the line and they can move on. But as incidences of violent encounters increase nationwide, there are more situations when a first responder might find themselves in a terrifying and traumatic situation.
The Sgt. France decision was specific to the facts of his case, which involved a shooting. But the law isn’t entirely about the cause of PTSD—it’s about the condition itself.
It appears that there are 2 conditions that would permit a first responder to receive workers’ compensation benefits according to this decision:
- The first responder must have a diagnosis of PTSD based on their specific symptoms.
- The event that triggered the PTSD must be unusual, unexpected, or extraordinary.
If both of these elements are present, the first responder can make a workers’ compensation claim to cover their mental health treatment, along with time off from work if necessary during their recovery, and other expenses as needed and allowed by workers’ compensation.
If you have a workers’ compensation claim for PTSD or any other work-related injury, or you’re not sure if your injury qualifies for workers’ compensation benefits, a certified workers’ compensation specialist can help answer your questions and assist with your claim so you can receive the benefits you need and deserve.