What Do You Think: Was Coworker’s Verbal Assault of Hospital Worker a ‘Workplace Accident?’

03 Apr, 2024 Chris Parker

                               

New York, NY (WorkersCompensation.com) – Can verbal abuse ever cause a compensable psychological injury in New York? A case involving a senior rehabilitation for a city hospital with PTSD recently explored that question.

The counselor claimed that he and a coworker with whom he had a history of conflict verbally abused him once to the point that he developed psychological injuries. The counselor testified that he suffered from depression, psychosis and posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of a Dec. 3, 2013, incident during which the coworker verbally assaulted him. He filed a workers’ compensation claim.

Company records confirmed complaints against the coworker for making threats against other employees other than the counselor. The records also showed that the company responded by investigating the incidents, moving the coworker to a different work area, and eventually firing the coworker.

A Workers’ Compensation Board denied the claim on the basis that the alleged assault did not constitute a workplace accident. The hospital asked the court to dismiss the counselor’s subsequent appeal of that decision.

The court noted that for a psychological injury premised on work-related stress to be compensable, a claimant must demonstrate that the stress that caused the injury was greater than that which other similarly situated workers experienced in the normal work environment.

In determining whether a claim fits that description, the Board must consider whether the alleged stressor:

1. Was one the claimant should reasonably and ordinarily be expected to encounter in the normal work environment, and is therefore non-accidental; or 

2. Was instead an unusual, unexpected or extraordinary part thereof and therefore accidental.

Was the alleged verbal abuse a covered accident?
A. Yes. A person who is a counselor in a hospital should not reasonably or ordinarily expect to be threatened.
B. No. The counselor was used to having verbal altercations with the coworker, and the hospital appropriately addressed the coworker’s behavior.

If you selected B, you agreed with the court in Spillers v. Health & Hospital Corp., No. 534701 (N.Y. App. Div. 03/28/24), which held that the claim was not compensable.

The court acknowledged the counselor’s testimony that the coworker verbally assaulted him and made him fear for his life. However, his claim that he developed psychological injuries was not credible, given that the counselor had a history of disputes with the coworker and given the hospital’s response. The employer, the court noted, responded appropriately by investigating, removing the coworker from the counselor’s work environment and, ultimately, terminating the coworker's employment. 

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“Deferring to the Board's credibility determinations, we find that … the December 2013 incident amounted to an ordinary dispute among coworkers to which the employer appropriately responded, and that the incident was not so improper or extraordinary so as to constitute a workplace accident under the Workers' Compensation Law,” the court wrote.

As the WCLJ noted, the court added, the worker "may not have been an exemplary employee." Further, he may have been verbally abusive and made threats to other employees. But that did not transform the 2013 incident into a workplace accident.

The court affirmed the Board’s decision.


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