A divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that the post-traumatic stress disorder of a 911 sender who answered a phone call from a mother who screamed after her infant was killed with a claw hammer is compensable under the state workers’ compensation code.
On appeal, the court was asked to rule on whether state law gives rescue workers a different, higher limit to be eligible for trauma-induced mental injury benefits at work than workers in other roles with identical injuries, under Nos. 21-0841, filed in Des Moines.
A 16-year-old veteran of Scott County’s alarm system answered a 911 call from a woman who shouted over and over in a high-pitched tone for more than two minutes. The operator eventually got the woman̵7;s address and sent out rescue workers.
In the months that followed, the respondent “could not shake the mother’s screams from her mind or her ears. Loud noises, in particular, would trigger debilitating anxiety,” according to the verdict.
Two doctors diagnosed her with PTSD as a result of the conversation. “She was given medicine to treat PTSD and wore special headphones to drown out loud noises, sometimes even with special musicians’ earplugs under larger noise-canceling headphones. It helped, but not enough. (The freight forwarder) found himself unable to perform his duties as emergency transmitter that she had before “, it says in the verdict.
While injuries from mental trauma at work have long been recognized as a basis for compensating workers in Iowa, the woman’s claim “did not meet the test of legal causation” according to a labor commissioner and district court, because 911 dispatchers make routine calls involving deaths and traumatic injury, and the mother’s outrageous conversation was thus not an “unexpected cause or unusual strain.”
In reverse, the state Supreme Court wrote that the sender “determined that her PTSD was due to an obvious event of a sudden traumatic nature of an unexpected cause or unusual strain”, adding that the sender “could always handle the trauma of work for sixteen years until she, a terrible day, was not. ” The court also argued that the bar for PTSD should not be higher for some professions than others.
Two judges agreed and one judge wrote a separate, unanimous opinion, calling for the need for PTSD presumption legislation in Iowa.
Three of the seven judges disagreed, one writing that the decision “overrides our case law which required employees to claim purely mental injuries to show that the triggering event was sudden, traumatic and unexpected in their profession. Substantial evidence supported the Commissioner’s actual decision to ( the sender’s) telephone conversation with the hysterical mother was not an unexpected event for a rescue worker, as other witnesses testified. ”