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June 28, 2012
CA Court: Psychiatric Injury Wasn’t Covered for New Worker

A new California Court of Appeals decision clarifies the six-months-on-the-job requirement for psychiatric injuries in a way that should make employers breathe a sigh of relief.

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New employee falls on the job

"Roy" started working for Cole Ranch as an avocado picker/high tree worker in May 2010. About 2 months later, he fell from the top of a 24-foot ladder while picking avocados from a 35-foot tree.

Roy suffered a serious and obvious head injury and sought workers’ compensation benefits for injury to his teeth, neck, back, and psyche. The employer’s insurer, the State Compensation Insurance Fund (SCIF), denied liability for the psychiatric injury because Roy had not worked for the employer for at least 6 months, as California Labor Code Section 3208.3(d) requires.

The workers’ compensation judge found that SCIF was liable because the injury was caused by a “sudden and extraordinary employment condition.” SCIF asked the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB) to reconsider the case, but the WCAB rejected the request, pointing to SCIF’s failure to provide evidence that the injury wasn’t extraordinary. (Because SCIF didn’t dispute that the fall was sudden, the only issue here was whether it was extraordinary.)

SCIF subsequently appealed to the state Court of Appeals.

Fruit picker’s fall wasn’t ‘extraordinary’

Section 3208.3(d) provides an exception from the 6 month-employment requirement for psychiatric injuries caused by a sudden and extraordinary employment condition. As the Court of Appeals explained, the exception encompasses “the type of events that would naturally be expected to cause psychic disturbances even in a diligent and honest employee.”

The event must be uncommon, unusual, and occur unexpectedly. The commonly cited examples are gas main explosions or episodes of workplace violence.

The court, however, emphasized that the exception could also apply to accidental injuries. In one case, for example, a rack of lumber suddenly fell on a manager-trainee’s leg while he was in a store aisle in a Home Depot. With no evidence that such occurrences were regular or routine, the Court of Appeals found that the trainee satisfied his burden of proving that his injury was the result of a sudden and extraordinary employment condition. (Matea v. W.C.A.B., Calif. Court of Appeals (Dist. 6) No. H029661, 2006)

But the court distinguished that case from Roy’s. For one thing, the Home Depot accident occurred in a store aisle that was open to the public, making it safe to assume that falling lumber incidents were “quite rare.” Moreover, the injury happened when the wall shelf holding up the rack of lumber collapsed without warning. The lumber presumably would have struck anyone who happened to be in the aisle at the time.

Roy’s injury, on the other hand, didn’t occur in a public area or an area shielded from typical job hazards. To the contrary, it was sustained in the avocado grove where Roy and his coworkers were picking fruit from high trees while standing on tall ladders.

A fall under these circumstances couldn’t be described as an uncommon, unusual, and totally unexpected occurrence. Rather, it was a hazard of performing work above ground level.

The burden is on the employee

Perhaps most notably, the Court of Appeals made clear that it wasn’t up to SCIF to introduce evidence that such falls weren’t extraordinary but an industry hazard. The burden was on the employee to show that his psychiatric injury was caused by a sudden and extraordinary employment event that triggered the exception.  State Compensation Insurance Fund v W.C.A.B. (Garcia), Calif. Court of Appeals (Dist. 2) No. B235258, (2012)

Practice Tip: An employment event doesn’t become presumptively ‘extraordinary’ for purposes of the exception simply because the employer doesn’t show it is regular or routine.

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