Q: Can an employer be held liable for an employee who develops a disabling mental condition because of the demands of the job and a supervisor's or director’s constant harassment?
A: In order to recover benefits under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act, an injured worker must prove that she sustained an accident arising out of and in the course of employment. Our upper courts have held that the term "accident" is broad enough to encompass injuries sustained over time due to repetitive or cumulative work -- even those caused solely by mental or emotional trauma with no traumatic physical injury. However, an injury arises out of the employment only if it was caused by a risk peculiar to or increased by some act or phase of the employment. An injury does not arise out of the employment if it was caused by a risk no greater than that to which the general public is exposed.
It can be said that virtually all employees in the modern American workforce are regularly exposed to the kinds of day-to-day mental and emotional stresses that you have described. Illinois courts have generally found that overwork, discipline, demotion, termination, undesirable work shifts, arguments with coworkers or supervisors and the like, are common to the general public and not increased within any particular job, trade or profession. Thus, most workers' compensation practitioners would likely decline to handle a claim such as that which you have described, even if the claim is fully supported by competent medical opinion and a definite clinical diagnosis.
Theoretically, a case could be compensable under our workers' compensation laws. From a practical standpoint, however, such cases are expensive to prosecute and extremely difficult to prove to the satisfaction of our upper courts.
Marc Perper welcomes your comments on this, or any other Workers’ Comp issue and can be reached at (800) 594-7433, or by visiting our website at www.horwitzlaw.com.
About Marc Perper: Marc is a partner with the firm of Horwitz, Horwitz & Associates, Ltd., with offices in Chicago and Joliet. Since 1984, he has represented injured workers at the Illinois Industrial Commission, in Circuit Court, and before the Illinois Appellate Court and the Illinois Supreme Court.