The 411 On Psychological Injuries Involving Florida First Responders

By: Suzanna Scarborough, Esquire and Alan M. Aronson, Esquire

Under current Worker's Compensation laws in Florida, psychological injuries are not generally considered compensable injuries. There are two notable exceptions to this rule: the first involves mental/emotional injuries arising out of compensable physical injuries; for example, depression caused by being unable to work or from long-term pain. These types of claims are available to all workers if authorized doctors feel that mental health treatment is required.

The second exception belongs solely to first responders, defined by statute as police officers, firefighters, EMT's and paramedics. This exception provides Workers Compensation medical benefits for mental/psychological injuries arising out of work. (See Florida Statute Section 112.1815). This is an important and necessary benefit because, as of 2014, it is estimated that as many as 10-15% of all police officers suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). FN 1. PTSD can develop from exposure to a single, traumatic event or can result from the cumulative effect of years of responding to traumatic situations. FN 2. Intense trauma, being hurt or losing someone, feelings of not being in control, and lack of support after the event are factors that increase the risk of developing PTSD. FN 3.

The symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Nightmares and flashbacks
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships
  • Sleeplessness
  • Anger and irritability
  • Hopelessness
  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating

FN 4.

It is apparent from the symptoms listed above that PTSD may significantly affect a first responder's ability to work, however the condition is often not readily or accurately diagnosed. FN 5. There are several reasons for the difficulty in diagnosis. The first reason is that access to mental health care and treatment by professionals with experience in treating PTSD is limited. FN 6. Secondly, many first responders do not seek assistance for psychological problems due to the belief that supervisors and co-workers will perceive them as weak or not fit for duty if diagnosed with PTSD. FN 7. This is a very realistic concern given that "fitness for duty" is a requirement to maintain employment as a first responder and many first responders believe they will be terminated by their employers rather than being considered "injured on the job" and taken care of accordingly.

But PTSD is curable and everyone who suffers from it should seek help. FN 8. A multi-dimensional approach to treatment has proven effective. This approach includes individual and group counseling, stress management, education, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) and medication. FN 9.

First responders in Florida may be provided with some or all of this treatment under the current Workers Compensation law but the law does NOT provide any payment for lost wages even if the treating psychiatrist determines the injured first responder is unable to work while in treatment. Moreover, the law places a higher burden of proof on the first responder; he or she must show by clear and convincing evidence that the psychological condition arose out of his or her employment. These are just some of the ways psychological injuries are treated differently than physical injuries despite the fact that they oftentimes prove to be significantly more debilitating.

[Suzanna Scarborough and Alan M. Aronson have extensive experience representing first responders in a variety of workers compensation matters including heart/lung bill claims, hepatitis and other exposure claims, as well as psychological injury only claims. They both served as staff attorneys for the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association and have intricate knowledge of the unique workplace issues faced by first responders every day.]

Bibliography:

  1. "PTSD: Not All Wounds are Visible", www.lawenfrocementtoday.com/2014/04/07/ptsd-in-first-responders
  2. Id.
  3. "What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?", www.maketheconnection.net
  4. Id. See also "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: An Introduction for Florida's Criminal Justice Officers", www.familyvio.csw.fsu.edu
  5. "Protecting the Mental Health of First responders: Legal and Ethical Considerations" by Lainie Rutkow, Lance Gable and Jonathan M. Links, www.aslme.org
  6. Id.
  7. Id. See also "Cops Dealing with PTSD Face Stigma, Lack of Resources", www.cbsnews.com
  8. See supra FN 4
  9. See supra FN

Side box: "PTSD is a greater cop killer than all the guns ever fired at police officers. "

Lt. James F. Devine, former director of NYPD Counseling Services

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