Now first responders can file a successful PTSD claim for the effects of cumulative trauma.
The old law did not allow PTSD claims which are based on psychological traumas which occur over time and combine to cause severe mental problems. This old law is still in effect, for all occupations in Washington State, except first responders.
This new law is a fix to the old law and exempts certain firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMT’s), and law enforcement officers from the L&I rule which disallows PTSD resulting from cumulative trauma.
Putting This New Law Into Perspective
To understand this new law, some detail of basic L&I law is required:
- L&I classifies all on the job claims as either an injury or an occupational disease. It makes a difference which type of L&I claim you have, injury or occupational disease.
- AN INJURY is a 1x event occurring suddenly and traumatically. For example, falling off scaffolding and breaking your arm is an injury. For further details see injury.
- AN OCCUPATIONAL DISEASE is different than an injury. An occupational disease develops over time. For a detailed definition see Occupational Disease. An example of an occupational disease is a painter who breathes toxic chemical every day and develops asthma. The painters asthma is an occupational disease because it developed over an extended period of time and it arises naturally & proximately out of employment.
The old L&I PTSD rule.
- In the past PTSD was disallowed if it accumulated over time (occupational disease).
- Injury PTSD resulting from a single traumatic event has been and will continue to be an allowable L&I claim.
- A series of minor traumatic events is not an allowable L&I occupational disease.
- A single traumatic event of sufficient magnitude, that occurs within a series of minor traumatic events, is allowable as a PTSD injury.
INJURY – The Law for all claims (first responders and everyone else too) is that PTSD caused by one stressful event is allowed as an L&I injury. RCW51.08.100 and WAC 296-14-300. A one time mental event, or one significant mental event in a series of events, is an allowable injury. For example, a bank teller who is witness to a bank robbery, and who develops PTSD, has an allowable L&I injury PTSD claim, subject to these guidelines:
“As an injury, stress resulting from exposure to a single traumatic event, such as actual or threatened death, actual or threatened physical assault, actual or threatened sexual assault, and life-threatening traumatic injury, may be considered an industrial injury. These exposures must occur in one of the following ways:
- directly experiencing the event;
- witnessing, in person, the event as it occurred to others; or
- extreme exposure to aversive details of the event.”
OCCUPATIONAL DISEASE – Under the old law, PTSD caused by repeated minor traumatic events is not allowed as an occupational disease. L&I does not allow mental conditions caused by stress when they accumulate over time.
What Does the New Law Do?
The new law does not change injury PTSD: this has been and continues to be an allowable L&I claim.
THE NEW LAW ALLOWS L&I PTSD CLAIMS CAUSED BY CUMULATIVE STRESS AS AN OCCUPATIONAL DISEASE FOR MOST FIRST RESPONDERS, (BUT NOT OTHER OCCUPATIONS) .
This means that first responders can now file a PTSD claim. With the new law it makes no difference whether it is a 1x injury (which was previously allowed) or the cumulative effects of numerous traumas,occupational disease, (which is now allowed for first responders).
THE NEW LAW GOES MUCH FURTHER. IT CREATES A REBUTABLE PRESUMPTION THAT PTSD CAUSED BY CUMULATIVE STRESS FOR FIRST RESPONDERS IS AN OCCUPATIONAL DISEASE.
This rebutable presumption is a huge benefit to first responders. HAVING an occupational disease is easy because the very nature of first reponder work causes PTSD. PROVING you have an occupational disease has always been expensive and difficult. This new law for first responders is very helpful because it doesn’t just allow a cumulative PTSD claim, it also makes it easier to prove that the PTSD is job related. This easing of the proof requirement is done with a rebutable presumption.
What is Rebutable Presumption?
The new law for first responders creates a rebutable presumption. A rebutable presumption is a legal procedural rule designed to assist persons when they are proving a claim. As it applies to this new law, and subject to the limitations listed below, any first responder occupational disease or inury PTSD to first responders will now be presumed to be work related unless proven otherwise.
Why is This Presumption Helpful?
- As the law was previously written, without a presumption, a first responder had to prove the medical details of their PTSD claim. This required expensive and hard to get psychiatric or psychological testimony.
- Under the new law, the first responder first shows they have PTSD, and then this medical condition will be presumed to be related to their job. If the employer chooses to fight the claim, the employer will have to prove that there is no PTSD or that the PTSD is not job related.
- Said another way this legal presumption is helpful because first responders’ PTSD claims, both occupational disease and injury, will now be easier to prove.
Important Details Limit the Scope of this New Legislation
- PTSD means a disorder that meets the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress specified by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, or in a later edition as adopted L&I rule.
- Even under the new law PTSD for first responders is excluded an an occupational disease if the condition is directly related to disciplinary action, work evalutions, job transfer, layoff, demotion, or termination taken in good faith by the employer.
- For the rebutable presumption to apply, PTSD must develop after the individual has served at least 10 years. This section appears to nevertheless allow the first responders PTSD to be a valid occupational disease, without the helpful presumption.
- For the rebutable presumption to apply to workers hired after the effective date of the legislation, that worker must, at the time of hire, submit to an employer sponsored exam which rules out PTSD. If no exam is provided by the employer, then there is no corresponding requirement.
- A first responder is:
- an emergency medical technician (EMT), generally defined as a full time city and county emergency medical technician
- a law enforcement officer, probably defined as full time commissioned county sheriffs, deputy sheriffs, and city police.
- certain firefighteras previously enumerated in RCW 51.32.185, together with some additional supervisors
- In addition to this new law, there still exists certain provisions of RCW 51.32.185 which benefits enumerated firefighters with occupational disease presumptions for respiratory disease, heart problems, cancer and infectious diseases.
Why Do First Responders Get a Special Law That Applies Only to Them?
First responders do the heavy lifting in the world of human tragedy. Every time they scrape up another lifeless body from a tragic accident, some of that tragedy rubs off on them. Every time they rescue and console a burned out family who has lost everything, it chokes them up too. Every time they risk their lives to restore law and order, their life thereafter is affected by that. Those experiences create real and lasting stressful changes in the first responders who experience them. Over time these stressful experiences add up to PTSD.
First reponders pay a price for what they do. The price they pay is on the job PTSD. They deserve L&I benefits and now they can get those benefits.