Orlando First Responder Who Carried Bodies from Nightclub Cannot Claim PTSD on Workers' Comp

After a three hour stand-off, Orlando police officers shot and killed the nightclub shooter responsible for the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 – 50 people dead and another 53 injured to varying degrees. Autopsies completed by the Orange County Medical Examiner’s Office revealed many of the victims were shot multiple times in the front or side, and from a short distance. More than a third were shot in the head, and most had multiple bullet wounds and were likely shot more than 3 feet (0.91 meters) away. One does not even want to imagine the carnage first responders saw while sorting through the victims.

An Orlando police officer who carried body after body from the nightclub that night has been diagnosed with PTSD and removed from active duty by his doctor. According to theOrlando Sentinel, the officer is a 12-year police veteran who normally worked with a small hazmat team handling operations such as drug bust clean ups rather than moving bodies. But, the night of June 12, 2016, he and six other officers worked for hours after the massacre handling victims “with dignity.” See his story told by him – http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/pulse-orlando-nightclub-shooting/os-gerry-realin-pulse-shooting-20160809-story.html

However, because Florida work comp laws specifically exclude such mental “injuries” from coverage without a corresponding physical injury, he does not have a workers’ compensation claim and will not receive benefits. Not being able to work during his ongoing treatment means his leave time is dwindling. He may soon be with no income and worries about supporting his family.

First responders – police officers, firefighters, paramedics/EMS – are considered to be at a higher risk for Acute Distress Disorder (ASD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than most other occupations due to high incidence of traumatic stressors in these jobs. Traumatic Stressors are generally understood to be such incidents that (1) put the first responder or those around him at risk for death or severe injury, (2) witnessing or participating in incidents where rescue involves preventing death or mitigating serious injury, (3) and various levels of witnessing such incidents. (Clinical Psychology Review, “Treating posttraumatic stress disorder in first responders: A systematic review.” Haugen, 2012, p.370).

While PTSD in our veteran population has been covered somewhat extensively in the media (and definitely should be), there has not been much main stream focus on the true impact of traumatic stressors on first responders. The Canadian Centre for Suicide Prevention estimates in one study that 22% of paramedics will develop PTSD. Other available studies have presented a range of rates of current PTSD from a low of 7%–19% in active duty police officers to 46% in volunteer disaster workers responding to an airline disaster with many other estimates falling between these extremes. (Haugen, 2012, p. 371). In 2012, researchers from a study published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology analyzed the results of 28 other studies that involved a total of 20,424 rescue workers from 14 different countries, including the U.S. This study concluded that at least 10% of rescue workers suffer from some form of PTSD, with risk being especially high for paramedics/EMS.

It may be time for Florida legislators to re-evaluate the inability of such first responders to obtain workers’ compensation coverage. The requirement in Florida (and certain other states) for there to first be physical injury that is then primarily responsible for the worker’s mental health disorder does have a stated purpose in trying to reduce fraudulent claims. Obviously, it’s easier to substantiate a physical injury than a mental injury. However, the more recent psychiatric studies being published show that due to the very nature of their work, first responders face a genuine risk of developing PTSD following a traumatic exposure without having a physical injury. Carving out a special PTSD exception in the workers’ compensation laws for first responders would be one way to modify the current law to keep up with our growing knowledge about psychiatric injuries.

For more information:

  1. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/orlando-responder-claim-ptsd-workers-comp-article-1.2762932
  2. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Peter_Haugen2/publication/224914497_Treating_posttraumatic_stress_disorder_in_first_responders_a_systematic_review/links/0fcfd5034d63fb4d0d000000.pdf
  3. http://www.cji.edu/site/assets/files/1921/post_traumatic_stress_disorder.pdf
  4. A more recent story details the ongoing first responder suicide crisis into 2015: http://bit.ly/paramedicdeath
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