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Are All Work-place Injuries Physical?

If a person hears the term "workplace injury," thoughts of a broken leg, a strained muscle, or an arm laceration typically come to mind. Quite frequently, however, we will file a claim on behalf of an injured employee and list our accident description as "mental injury."

In Illinois, psychological injuries are compensable under one of two theories, either physical-mental, when the injuries are related to and caused by a physical trauma or injury, or mental-mental, when the injuries are caused by sudden, severe emotional shock, traceable to a definite time and place and cause, even though no physical trauma or injury was sustained.

An example of a physical-mental claim would be something such as severe anxiety following a traumatic accident, such as losing a hand in a bizarre machine malfunction. The actual physical injury is a claim, but so is the mental anxiety that is likely to follow. Even a minor physical contact or injury may be sufficient to trigger compensability.

Prior to 1976, mental disability was only compensable if it followed physical contact or injury. However, in Pathfinder v. Industrial Comm'n, 62 Ill.2d 556, 343 N.E.2d 913 (1976), the employee pulled a coworker's severed hand from a machine, fainted, and claimed psychological problems after the incident. The Illinois Supreme Court then set guidelines for claiming injury under a mental-mental theory of recovery. The Court held that an employee who suffers severe emotional shock which causes psychological injury or harm has suffered an accident within the meaning of the Act, though no physical trauma or injury was sustained.

To claim a mental-mental injury, the employee must be engaged in employment at the time and place of the cause of the injury. He must prove that the injury occurred because of a work-related risk or because the employment placed the claimant at risk of exposure "exceeding that of the general public." This is not to be taken that an employee may recover for every nontraumatic phsycic injury from which he suffers, merely because he can identify some stressful work-related episode which contributes in part to his depression or anxiety. For example, anxiety, emotional stress or depression which develops over time in the normal course of an employment relationship does not constitute a compensable injury. Neither do things such as transfers, demotions, new responsibilities, layoffs or terminations, which the Courts consider to be normal and expected conditions of employment life, along with the accompanying insecurity and worry.

Compensation for non-traumatic injury cannot be dependent upon the particular changes in the mind-frame of the employee as he tries to adjust to his work environment. The Courts will not allow compensation for gradually developing mental disability which is attributed to factors such as worry, anxiety, tension, pressure, and overwork without proof of a specific time, place, and event producing the disability. The conditions claimed to be causing the mental issues must exist in reality, from an objective standpoint. Furthermore, the employment conditions, when compared with the non-employment conditions, must be the major contributing cause of the mental disorder. Mental disorders which develop over time in the normal course of the employment relationship do not constitute compensable injuries.

Again, not all accidents that fall under the Illinois Worker's Compensation Act require physical injury. A claimant can file a claim for mental injury, as long as he can show his mental condition is the product of something other than the normal stress associated with employment. 

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