LAW LIFE: Comp denied for PTSD caused by robbery

By Pat Murphy

The Daily Record Newswire

When getting robbed at gunpoint is ruled a "normal" part of the job, perhaps it's time for a career change.

Gregory Kochanowicz in fact claims that he is no longer fit to work in any capacity after being the victim of an armed robbery in 2008.

Kochanowicz has been employed by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board for over 30 years. On the evening of April 28, 2008, he was working as manager of the state liquor store in Morrisville when a masked man brandishing two guns stepped through the front door.

The gunman duct taped Kochanowicz and a coworker to chairs. After emptying the cash register and an office safe, the gunman left with his loot.

Although no one was physically harmed during the armed robbery, seared into Kochanowicz's brain was the memory of being prodded in the back of the head with a gun. Kochanowicz claimed that he suffered anxiety, depression, and flashbacks following the robbery. A clinical psychologist verified the psychic injury, diagnosing Kochanowicz with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Unable to return to work, Kochanowicz filed a claim for total disability benefits with the state workers' compensation commission. The commission granted the claim for a work-related psychic injury.

The state liquor control board contested the award. A psychiatrist hired by the employer to evaluate Kochanowicz confirmed the PTSD diagnosis, but concluded that his condition had improved to the point that it could no longer be considered a mental disorder. In sum, the psychiatrist concluded that Kochanowicz was fit enough to return to work.

Last month, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court reviewed the case. Under state law, a workers' compensation claimant asserting a psychic injury must prove that he "was exposed to abnormal working conditions and that his psychological problems are not a subjective reaction to normal working conditions."

The court overturned Kochanowicz's award, taking the somewhat curious tack that Kochanowicz's psychic injury was the result of "normal" working conditions.

The court explained the employer "presented uncontested evidence that there had been 99 robberies of its southeastern Pennsylvania retail stores since 2002, which equates to 15 robberies per year or more than one per month. There had been four retail liquor store robberies in close proximity to Claimant's store within just weeks of the robbery in this case. ...

"Unfortunately, given the frequency Employer's stores had been robbed and the proximity of the recent incidents, robberies of liquor stores are a normal condition of retail liquor store employment in today's society, and the Board erred in holding otherwise." (Liquor Control Board v. Kochanowicz)

There's a certain logic to the court's decision, but it seems a bit of a stretch to conflate foreseeability with normalcy. Sure, we take it for granted that liquor stores in today's society are prime targets for robbery, but that doesn't mean we should deem robbery a normal part of the job when considering workers' compensation benefits.

I'd take bets right now that this decision gets overturned.

Published: Thu, Oct 20, 2011

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