A case last week resulting in the award of workers’ compensation benefits to a police officer may not have been wrong based on the argument; instead I question whether the argument was correct to begin with.

Pennsylvania Trooper Philip Payes suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after striking and killing a 28 year old woman who ran in front of his cruiser in the early morning hours of Nov. 29, 2006. The woman, who apparently had mental health issues, had been seen running up and down the road prior to jumping in front of the Trooper's vehicle. He was headed to work when the accident occurred.

The state Commonwealth Court and Workers Compensation Appeal Board both ruled that he was not eligible for benefits. They sided with the arguments given by the state police that “Payes’ experience was part and parcel of the dangerous and often disturbing working conditions that police officers must expect to face”.

The state Supreme Court reversed that decision, finding that the accident did not meet the “danger matrix” police officers routinely face. They ruled that the “highly unusual and singular nature” of the event thereby made him eligible for the benefits. The sentiment of the court was easily summed up in the majority opinion written by Justice Seamus P. McCaffery. It says, quite simply, “What happened on Nov. 29, 2006 was not an event normally experienced or anticipated by employees in [Payes’] line of work.”

I don't doubt that this was a tragic occurrence. I also feel for the trooper, and understand the issues that stress from this event could produce. I just don't agree he was entitled to workers' compensation benefits. I believe the entire defense, that this incident was something an officer can expect in the course of their job, was wrong.

He wasn't on the job. He was driving to work. He was driving a “company vehicle”, to be certain, but otherwise his morning commute was no different than yours or mine.

Many states make special exceptions for first responders, and they are often considered “on the job”, even when they are not. New Mexico recently saw a case where an off duty officer, chaperoning a church picnic, was awarded death benefits after he broke his neck diving into a river to save a child. Even in that case, however (which I also disagreed with), that officer was engaged in an action that cast him in the light of helping another, trying to save a child who was drowning.

My crack research staff at WorkCompResearch.com tells me Pennsylvania statute does seem to allow for this extended application of benefits. Section 104, reads, in part, that employees “shall be entitled to receive compensation in case of injuries received while actually engaged as policemen or while going to or returning from their place of duty”. This particular section appears to be designed to clarify this coverage for Auxiliary police, but the inference is clear that coverage should be extended in these situations.

I tend to disagree with this simplistic view. I am all for extending excellent benefits to those who are willing to risk their lives for us on a daily basis, but perhaps those benefits should be provided in some manner other than workers' comp.  We can call it whatever we want, but this was quite simply not a work related incident.

Unless – and this is purely hypothetical – the woman intentionally chose the troopers car to step in front of; a “Suicide by Cop” with the car serving as the fatal weapon in place of a gun.  That would change the dynamic considerably, and place this squarely in the realm of a work related incident. The risk, of course, is that if this were proven to be the case, the trooper might never receive the benefits he sought.

Under that scenario, it could very well have been determined that this was something that was within the expected conditions of his employment, and something that he could reasonably anticipate. Justice J. Michael Eakin , in his dissenting opinion on this decision, wrote that benefits should have been denied because the fatal crash didn’t constitute an “abnormal” working condition for a police officer. He wrote, “Law enforcement officers potentially face life-and-death situations every day. Confrontations, injuries, blood, death and other frightening events are unfortunate, but necessarily a daily part of their work.”

An intentional act, a person targeting an officer in an effort to have them take one's life, is not an unknown risk for a policeman. It is ironic that, conceivably at least, the officer thrust into that situation because of his job might not be awarded workers' compensation benefits, while the officer simply driving to the office was.

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