Compensability of Mental Injury Claims

By Jared Vessell, VBM Attorney

Article written September 1, 2022

287.120.  Liability of employer set out — compensation increased or reduced, when — use of alcohol or controlled substances or voluntary recreational activities, injury from — effect on compensation — mental injuries, requirements, firefighter stress not affected.

As a general rule, mental stress claims are not compensable in Missouri; Section 287.120.8 of the Missouri Workers' Compensation Act, "The Act", provides:

287.120.8.  Mental injury resulting from work-related stress does not arise out of and in the course of the employment, unless it is demonstrated that the stress is work related and was extraordinary and unusual.  The amount of work stress shall be measured by objective standards and actual events.

The legislature further goes on to include:

287.120. 9.  A mental injury is not considered to arise out of and in the course of the employment if it resulted from any disciplinary action, work evaluation, job transfer, layoff, demotion, termination or any similar action taken in good faith by the employer.

Lastly the legislature added:

287.120.10.  The ability of a firefighter to receive benefits for psychological stress under section 287.067 shall not be diminished by the provisions of subsections 8 and 9 of this section.

It should also be noted that 287.120.10 carves out a special exception to 287.120.8 for firefighters.

287.120.8, requires the proper objective standard to be applied for mental injury cases.  As a whole, they are not compensable.  They are only compensable if the employee can prove the requisite requirements by objective standards.  The Missouri Supreme Court in dicta in the Mantia case noted that allowing only subjective evidence to meet the objective standard announced in Section 287.120.8 would render the firefighter exception in 287.120.10 meaningless.

“Because the legislature believed stress is such a regular matter for firefighters that it would be difficult to show that stress was of an ‘extraordinary and unusual’ degree for those in that occupation”.  If claimants were not required to demonstrate unusual and extraordinary stress by an objective standard, there would be no need to create an exception for firefighters in section 287.120.10.  The legislature made a clear exception for firefighters seeking workers’ compensation benefits that was not provided to any other class of claimants.  “When interpreting statutes, courts do not presume that the legislature has enacted a meaningless provision.”  State ex rel. Nothum v. Walsh, 380 S.W.3d 557, 576 (Mo. banc 2012) (quoting Edwards v. Gerstein, 237 S.W.3d 580, 581 (Mo. banc 2007)).  Allowing only subjective evidence to meet the objective standard announced in section 287.120.8 would render the firefighter exception in 287.120.10 meaningless.”

With this in mind, employees have a higher burden than a firefighter to prove a mental injury.  They must use the appropriate objective standard and actual events. What is the “objective standard and actual evidence”?

In a 2020 Southern District Court of Appeals case, Shipley v. State of Missouri Office of Administration the court noted the following:

“To prevail on this claim, Claimant had to demonstrate “‘by objective standards and actual events” the amount of work stress endured was both “work related and was extraordinary and unusual.”  Mantia  v.  Missouri  Dep’t  of  Transp.,  529  S.W.3d  804,  809  (Mo.  banc 2017) (quoting RSMo §   287.120.8).  “Most commonly, a claimant will meet this standard by comparing the claimant’s level of stress with the level of stress faced by other employees in the same profession.”  Id. at 810.

The Mantia court explains what is required for work stress to be considered objectively unusual and extraordinary. They note: “Employee need not show the subjective experiences of her fellow workers were not as severe as her experiences, but rather, she must demonstrate the actual events she experienced were such that a reasonable highway worker would experience extraordinary and unusual stress.  There may be multiple approaches to meet this objective standard, which may vary from case to case.  Most commonly, a claimant will meet this standard by comparing the claimant’s level of stress with the level of stress faced by other employees in the same profession.  See Schaffer v. Litton Interconnect Tech., 274 S.W.3d 597, 601 (Mo. App. S.D. 2009) (finding a claimant must compare the level of work-related stress with other employees in similar positions to meet an objective standard) and Carnal v. Pride Cleaners, 138 S.W.3d 155, 158 (Mo. App. W.D. 2004) (same).”

Even when an Employee can show the actual work events Employee experienced exposed them to stress, the Employee must also present evidence the actual work events comprising the “same or similar conditions” would have caused extraordinary and unusual stress to a reasonable worker in the same profession.

Workers’ compensation benefits for mental injury must be based upon evidence the Employee can objectively prove.  The court in Mantia noted this “is not merely what the Employee subjectively thought and felt”.

When confronted with an alleged mental stress/injury case remember the burden upon the Employee to prove it is work related.  The legislature has taken a position on mental injury claims that they are not compensable --- except when --- The actual event or stress in which the employee is alleging caused mental injury must be of a level that other similarly situated employees would consider it unusual and extraordinary for that profession.  Daily duties and work activities of employees generally wouldn’t rise to the level of unusual and extraordinary. Those or intrinsic risks of any job.

Always remember that Mental injury claims for any employment action such as discipline or even termination is not compensable.  In 287.120.9, the legislature requires the employment action to have been taken in good faith by the employer.

If you have a question about Mental injury claims, please don’t hesitate to contact our office at 573-777-4488 or email me Jared.Vessell@vbmlaw.com

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