Are mental injuries compensable under the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act? The quick answer is yes, they are. However, it does require some explanation as the law in this area is quite tricky.
Mental injuries, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and panic disorders are typically diagnosed after some type of traumatic event in the workplace. We have handled several such cases involving robberies, serious car wrecks and catastrophic-type accidents such as brain injuries, amputations and paralysis.
However, to be compensable, the mental injury must be linked to a physical injury that also occurred during the on the job accident. The workers’ compensation insurance carriers typically provide for medical care for the mental injury during the length of time that the physical injury also requires medical care. So long as the authorized treating physician, typically a therapist or psychologist, links the mental injury to the physical injury, it will be covered by work comp.
What might change however later on is if the treating healthcare provider is of the professional opinion that the mental injury is no longer tied to the physical injury. This typically happens when the mental injury and related symptoms are tied to the event that caused the injuries at work and not tied to the physical injury.
The Alabama Courts have set a standard in psychological injury cases called the “contributing cause standard”. Ex parte Vongsouvanh, 795 So.2d 625 (Ala. 2000); CVS Corporation, Inc. v. Frances Smith, 981 So.2d 1128 (Ala. Civ. App. 2007). This standard states that the physical injury does not have to be the sole cause of the injury and the employee need only show that the physical injury was a factor in causing the mental anguish or injury.
What if you have a pre-existing mental or psychological condition? A pre-existing mental condition does not affect the ability to receive medical treatment or compensation as long as the physical injury causes the mental illness to start, become worse or reactivate. See Taylor v. Mobile Pulley and Machinery Works, 714 So. 2d 300 (Ala. Civ. App. 1997). Thus, as long as the mental anguish at least partially stems from the physical injury then the claim for compensation is valid.
This area of the law can be quite confusing and often hotly contested by the employer and its workers’ compensation company. The bottom line here is there must be a physical injury tied to the mental injury for it to be compensable.