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Public Employee’s Stress, Anxiety Caused By Negative Publicity and Prisoner Harassment Is Covered Under Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Act, SJC Rules.

Recently, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Cosmo Bisazza’s Case, SJC-10183 (Nov. 20, 2008), that mental and emotional injuries are analyzed under the same standard as physical injuries under the Workers’ Compensation Act.  An employee is eligible for workers’ compensation if the employee “receives a personal injury arising out of and in the course of his employment.”  G. L. c. 152, §26.  The legislation defines “personal injury” to include an emotional or mental injury if “the predominant contributing cause of such disability is an event or series of events occurring within any employment.”  G. L. c. 152, §1.  The SJC held that disabling stress and anxiety caused by negative media coverage and prisoner harassment may be covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act.

In this case, a correction officer suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) and stopped working after he was falsely accused by inmates and the media of abusing inmates including convicted child molester and former priest John Geoghan (Geoghan was later murdered by another prisoner).  Initial media coverage in the wake of Geoghan’s murder included accusations that unnamed officers harassed Geoghan.  Thereafter, prisoners taunted the officer and threatened to “get” him and spread lies to the media about his treatment of Geoghan.  Newspapers subsequently reported prisoner allegations that the officer tortured Geoghan and placed excrement in his cell.  Though the officer ultimately was transferred and cleared of all misconduct, a psychiatrist concluded that he suffered from PTSD as a result of work-related trauma, including inmate harassment and negative publicity.  The psychiatrist further concluded that the misleading press coverage was more at fault for the PTSD than the actual prisoner harassment.  A board of the Division of Industrial Accidents, which is the state agency that handles disputes under the Workers’ Compensation Act, granted benefits to the officer.

On appeal, the SJC rejected the employer’s argument that mental and emotional injuries require a higher standard of “work-relatedness” than physical injuries.  The SJC also upheld the DIA’s conclusion that the officer’s injuries were sufficiently work related. 

The Court’s decision in Cosmo Bisazza’s Case contains at least two interesting aspects.  First, the Court declined to rule on whether PTSD caused only by negative publicity related to job performance qualifies for workers’ compensation.  While the Court agreed that the negative press was the predominant cause of the PTSD, it also noted that prior to the media coverage, the prisoners harassed the officer and threatened to spread lies about his treatment of Geoghan to the media.  The negative publicity, therefore the SJC concluded, was an extension of the inmates’ campaign of work-place harassment against the officer, rather than an independent phenomenon. 

Second, the Court appeared to distance itself from the one of the more repugnant Workers’ Compensation decisions in the past.  In Collier’s Case, 331 Mass. 374 (1954), the Court ruled that a waitress was ineligible for benefits after she was beaten by a male customer after work, after the two had argued during her earlier shift.  The SJC stated in a footnote, “Although we need not decide the point, it is questionable whether the court would rule as it did in Collier’s Case, 331 Mass. 374 (1954), if those same facts were before it today.”