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States Need Clearer Laws on PTSD Compensation Claims for First Responders

Start a criminal justice degree at American Military University.

Editor’s Note: This article is the second in four-part series addressing challenges related to workers’ compensation and pension benefits for psychological injuries. Read the first article about why first responders suffering from PTSD must be eligible for compensation.

By Dr. Chuck RussoProgram Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University and
Dr. Stephanie Myers-Hunziker, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

Law enforcement officers and other first responders suffering from PTSD or other psychological injuries face an uphill battle when trying to collect workers’ compensation in the absence of physical injury. Some states do not recognize psychological injuries as eligible for receiving workers’ compensation, while others differ widely on the requirements that qualify as an injury.

[Related: Is PTSD Worthy of Pension Benefits?]

One recent study (Robinson, 2014) categorized states according to how they handle compensation claims for mental illness and PTSD without physical injury. As seen in the table below, this research found that states vary widely in how they award compensation claims (if at all) for PTSD.

Classification  # of States General Rule
Category 1 15 Will not award any money for any type of PTSD claim without physical injury.
Category 2 15 Will only award money if the qualifying event was “unusual.”
Category 3 5 Might award money if the qualifying event was ‘sudden’
Category 4 3 Will award money for PTSD claims
Category 5 12 These states do not fall into any category due to uncertainty of rulings.

The table highlights various glaring problems with how states handle compensation claims for PTSD, even when they do award it. For example, in category two, 15 states require there be an “unusual” event surrounding the claim. This is likely to be problematic as states’ decision regarding the definition of “unusual” seems to be based on the individual’s position/occupation. This could prove ambiguous for public safety personnel who are expected to deal with the “unusual.”

Nevertheless, there have been success stories, such as in the case of a fire lieutenant in Illinois, which is a state that falls into category two. The fire lieutenant was in command of fighting a house fire that resulted in the death of a fellow firefighter. This incident was deemed unusual and the lieutenant’s PTSD claim was found to be compensable. The fact that the department required personnel who responded to that incident to be cleared by a mental health professional before being allowed to return to work strengthened the view that the event was indeed traumatic and unusual (Robinson, 2016).

Research by Wise and Beck (2015) also examined the implications of workers’ compensation practices and policies related to work-related trauma and PTSD across states. They discovered that despite “considerable empirical knowledge about trauma and PTSD, a gap exists with respect to laws undergirding workers’ compensation (WC) insurance coverage for work-related mental health injuries” (p. 500). They, too, found that workers’ compensation laws vary greatly from state to state and vary greatly in coverage depending on physical injury or psychological injury. They also observed the “lack of reliance on psychological science in scripting legislation and determining WC benefits” (p. 500).

Wise and Beck categorized public safety worker compensation systems in four categories as seen in the table below.

Workers Comprehension Coverage

Category of Injuries

(Cause of Injury – Result of Injury)

Number of States with Coverage

(including Washington, D.C.)

Physical-Physical 51
Physical-Mental 16
Mental-Mental 19
Mental Extraordinary/Unusual 18

Only one state, Montana, covers only physical-physical injuries. Sixteen states cover physical-mental injuries as well as physical-physical injuries. Nineteen other states were categorized as states that cover mental-mental injuries as well as physical-physical injuries. Eighteen states provide coverage if the mental cause is found to be extraordinary, unusual, and/or outside the individual’s scope of a typical experience.

Among states categorized as physical-mental states, disparities were noted in case law, which brings into question a definitive classification of that state. While consistency among states is apparent regarding physical injury, coverage of psychological injury depends on the location of the incident/event. When psychological injury is covered to some extent, language in worker compensation policy fails to mimic that found in psychological science, which leads to uncertainty and confusion when attempting to determine necessary psychological injury benefits.

While there remain many disparities among states in how they handle workers’ compensation claims, recent proposed legislation in a few states does provide hope that they may remove existing limitations on compensation for psychological injuries.

Promising Legislative Changes to Compensation Claims?

Legislators in Florida and Minnesota have been working on legislation that impact workers’ compensation statues. For example, Minnesota Bill HF3873 expanded the list of “occupational diseases” to include PTSD. Bill sponsor Representative Dan Schoen believed the change enabled “state law to catch up with the reality first responders face.”

In Florida, Representative Mike Miller is seeking to push a similar bill. In the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, and other mass-shooting incidents around the state, Miller became aware that public safety responders are finding no assurance of collecting a paycheck while receiving treatment for PTSD nor are they finding long-term relief from the workers’ compensation fund. In addition, Florida Senators Torres and Perry have presented bills that would aid first responders suffering from PTSD. While neither of these bills passed, SB 516 and SB 1088, others continue to craft legislation that could prove successful.

Passing such legislation would likely help create important precedents for similar bills in other states. Standardizing compensation claims across the country that covers psychological injuries would provide first responders with the security and coverage they deserve.

Read the next two articles in this series: 

About the Authors:

compensation claimsDr. Chuck Russo is the Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University (AMU). He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in Central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the world. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, post-traumatic stress, nongovernment intelligence actors, and online learning.

compensation claimsDr. Stephanie Myers-Hunziker is a Professor of Criminal Justice at American Military University. She has a tremendous amount of practical work and research experience working inside public agencies. Early in her professional career, Dr. Myers-Hunziker was awarded a National Institute of Justice fellowship for her dissertation research on police interactions with juveniles. While conducting other research sponsored by the National Institute of Justice she has on several occasions worked inside police departments. Her specialty is helping public organizations identify their goals and better understand how to achieve them. To that end, Dr. Myers-Hunziker has published an article on the art of identifying and implementing best practices from the field.

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Robinson, T. A. (2014, June 21). The post-traumatic stress disorder dilemma for workers’ compensation claims. LexisNexis Workers’ Compensation eNewsletter. Retrieved from’-compensation/b/recent-cases-news-trends-developments/archive/2014/06/21/the-post-traumatic-stress-disorder-dilemma-for-workers’-compensation-claims.aspx?Redirected=true

Robinson, T. A. (2016, August 4). Illinois: Fire lieutenant entitled to benefits for PTSD following fatal fire. LexisNexis Workers’ Compensation eNewsletter. Retrieved from’-compensation/b/recent-cases-news-trends-developments/archive/2016/08/04/illinois-fire-lieutenant-entitled-to-benefits-for-ptsd-following-fatal-fire.aspx?Redirected=true

Wise, E. & Beck, J. G. (2015). Work-related trauma, PTSD, and workers’ compensation legislation: Implications for practice and policy. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 7(5), 500-506.


Dr. Chuck Russo

Dr. Chuck Russo is the Department Chair of Human Justice at AMU. His law enforcement career involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations. He continues to design and instruct courses. His recent research focuses on emerging technology in law enforcement, post-traumatic stress, and nongovernment intelligence actors.

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