A Police Detective Handling a Death Scene is Not an Unexpected Stress Situation

Police units respond on scene.

In Matthews, the claimant was hired by the City of Tucson Police Department as an officer in 2000. After passing a pre-employment physical exam and psychological evaluation, the claimant underwent training that included acknowledging that his duties might require him to respond to death scenes, handle body parts, conduct child molestation interviews, and be subjected to various other stressful and emotionally charged situations. In 2011, the claimant was promoted to detective and worked in the violent crimes unit for 6 years and the street crimes unit for 1 year before being reassigned to the domestic violence unit.

In June 2018, the clamant was called to the scene of a barricaded man in the garage of a residence following a domestic violence report. The claimant watched a live video stream of the residence from a command post about a block away as negotiators spoke with the man. After gunshots were heard, officers stationed at the residence breached the garage door, and the man crawled out with a gunshot to the chest. Despite attempts to administer first aid, he died at the scene. The claimant viewed this from the command post and then was assigned to inspect the body and process and photograph the crime scene. In September 2018, the claimant filed a claim alleging PTSD from the incident. The claim was denied and the claimant filed for hearing.

At hearing, Sergeant Daniel Spencer, a training supervisor for the Tucson Police Department, testified that the event in question was rare, and the claimant testified that the June 2018 incident was only the most recent among several other events that had contributed to his PTSD. Benny Click, a former Phoenix police officer and Dallas police chief, testified it was not an unusual event, stating, “there are some very powerful stressors that officers can be exposed to, and yet it’s part of the job. It’s not unanticipated, it’s not extraordinary, it’s not unusual,” and even more stressful events such as the shooting of a fellow officer and mass shootings are part of an officer’s training and not unanticipated. 

The ALJ concluded that the claim was not compensable because the June 2018 incident “was not an unexpected, unusual or extraordinary stress situation,” and that because the claimant had not filed a gradual injury claim, the ALJ did not consider prior incidents that he had testified about.  Thus, the ALJ denied the claim. The claimant appealed and the Arizona Court of Appeals (the Court) affirmed the ALJ’s Order.

The Court stated that the event “must be examined from the standpoint of a reasonable employee with the same or similar job duties and training as the claimant, as opposed to the claimant’s subjective reaction to the event.” And the ALJ must “focus on the stress imposed on the worker rather than how the worker experienced it.” The ALJ concluded, “based on the evidence of record and the testimony … this was not an unexpected, unusual or extraordinary stress situation.” The Court held that there was sufficient evidence in the record to inform and support the ALJ’s conclusion. Because there was evidence that the June incident was not an extraordinary or unanticipated occurrence in the context of domestic violence police work, the Court could not say the ALJ erred in so concluding.

The claimant also challenged the constitutionality of the mental claim statute that it unfairly treated applicants in high stress occupations, such as police officers.  A.R.S. § 23-1043.01(B), states that “A mental injury, illness or condition shall not be considered a personal injury by accident arising out of and in the course of employment and is not compensable pursuant to this chapter unless some unexpected, unusual or extraordinary stress related to the employment or some physical injury related to the employment was a substantial contributing cause of the mental injury, illness or condition.” The Court noted that all individuals with stress-related mental injury or illness workers’ compensation claims are members of a class treated alike by statute.

The Court affirmed the ALJ’s determination that the injury was not compensable.

Matthews v. Indus. Comm’n of Ariz., 2021 WL 2885804, — P.3d — (July 9, 2021).

Want to know more? Contact Ilene Feldmeier at ifeldmeier@pollartmiller.com or 877-259-5693.

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram