Johnson v. Vescom
Liberty Mutual Insurance
November 17, 2016
Mental Injury Work-Related Stress Mental Causing Physical Heart Attack Bryant v. Masters Machine
Summary from the Troubh Heisler Attorneys
Johnson was a security guard at the paper mill in Baileyville. She checked vehicles, visitors and deliveries at the main gate, and she had a heart attack during work. She filed a Petition for Award alleging it was causally related to her work and thus compensable under Maine's WC Act.
Dr. Teufel performed a §312 IME and found that, although Johnson had pre-existing coronary artery disease, her "work-stress" caused her heart attack. Judge Pelletier found that Ms. Johnson was psychologically fragile and thought she may be laid off soon (which she apparently was), and that this mental stress brought about her physical injury.
Vescom appealed, arguing that Judge Pelletier should have applied the higher standards of compensability for mental stress injuries under §201 (3). The appellate panel disagreed, because Johnson was claiming a physical injury, not a mental injury. Vescom also argued that Johnson failed to show "legal causation," because her heart attack could have happened any time, regardless of whether she was at work. The panel again disagreed, finding support in the record that Johnson’s work stress increased her risk of a heart attack.
By applying the Bryant v. Masters Machine Co. standard of compensability in cases where a heart attack is caused by “work related’ stress, the AD may have opened the door to awarding disability benefits for mental injuries without having to meet the higher standard of proof in §201 (3). The decision refers to the mental stress as “work related” without reference to §201(3) because Johnson had physical manifestations of the “work related” stress in the form of a heart attack. On this basis, the WCB might also let employees establish compensable disability arising from mental stress without satisfying the specific §201(3) burdens as long as there are some other physical manifestations such as headaches, nausea, or insomnia.