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Workers’ Compensation: Mental Illness Caused by “Unexpected, Unusual or Extraordinary Stress”

Posted by Ted A. Schmidt | Nov 30, 2022 | 0 Comments

Matthews v. Industrial Comm'n, No. CV-21-0192-PR (November 23, 2022) (J. Bolick)


Tucson Police Department [TPD] Officer Matthews sought psychiatric treatment after responding to the scene of an accident involving a police officer on a bicycle hit by a car. The officer ultimately died.  No Workers' Compensation [WC] was made for this treatment. This treatment went on for years. Nineteen years later while working the domestic violence unit he responded to the scene of an armed suspect barricaded in a garage with his ex-wife and stepson. He watched the scene on a live stream from a block away as other officers negotiated with the suspect. He heard gunshots and ultimately watched as the suspect crawled out of the garage bleeding from a self-inflicted chest wound. The suspect died. Matthews was required to inspect the body and photograph the crime scene. Thereafter Matthews had nightmares and flashbacks and difficulty concentrating on his job. Both his psychiatrist and the City of Tucson's doctor recommended he be relieved of his work duties.

Matthews filed a WC arising from the shooting incident claiming it exacerbated his preexisting post traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]. The claim was denied.  Sergeant Daniel Spencer, his TPD training supervisor, testified at the WC hearing that over 100 officers were in the area of the shooting and the only thing “unique” to Matthews' participation was his inspection of the body.  He further testified that TPD investigates two to four domestic violence barricade situations a year and that the one causing Matthew's PTSD was “standard issue.” The City of Tucson offered expert testimony from a former Phoenix police officer currently working as the Dallas police chief. He testified the incident was not unusual and that stress is an expected part of police work. The Administrative Law Judge [ALJ] denied the claim based upon A.R.S. § 23-1043.01(B) which only allows WC to be paid for mental illness that is caused by  “unexpected, unusual or extraordinary stress.”  Matthews brought this special action claiming the statute violates article 18, section 8 of the Arizona Constitution because it allows the defendants to use an “assumption of the risk” defense against applicants.” The Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed the ALJ. The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed the ALJ and affirmed the court of appeals in part and vacated their decision in part.

Article 18, section 8 of the Arizona Constitution allows for WC for

Injury and to his dependents, as defined by law, in case of his death,

by his employer, if in the course of such employment personal

injury to or death of any such workman from any accident

arising out of and in the course of, such employment, is

caused in whole, or in part, or is contributed to, by a necessary

risk or danger of such employment, or a necessary risk or

danger inherent in the nature thereof . . .

(Emphasis added).

The supreme court, using dictionary definitions published in 1912 (when the Arizona Constitution was adopted)  concluded that a mental “illness” is not an “injury” and that Matthews' “illness” was not caused by an “accident.”  Accordingly, there was no right to recover WC for a mental illness based upon the Arizona Constitution. That right exists solely to the extent it has been created by the legislature.  Therefore, Matthews' WC claim for his mental illness would only be allowed if it comported with the later statutorily created right to recover for mental illness (A.R.S. § 23-1043.01(B))  that “arises from unexpected, unusual or extraordinary stress.” The evidence presented at the ALJ did not support such a finding.

About the Author

Ted A. Schmidt

Ted's early career as a trial attorney began on the other side of the fence, in the offices of a major insurance defense firm. It was there that Ted acquired the experience, the skills and the special insight into defense strategy that have served him so well in the field of personal injury law. Notable among his successful verdicts was the landmark Sparks vs. Republic National Life Insurance Company case, a $4.5 million award to Ted's client. To this day, it is the defining case for insurance bad faith, and yet it is only one of several other multi-million dollar jury judgments won by Ted during his career. He is certified by the State Bar of Arizona as a specialist in "wrongful death and bodily injury litigation".


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