In a recent case, the First District Court of Appeals in Florida issued an opinion in an appeal involving a benefits dispute between an employer and an employee. The claimant is a former emergency medical technician (EMT) that has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which the employer does not dispute. Instead, following a judgment in favor of the employer by the Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC), the employee appealed based on a differing interpretation of Florida Statute 112.1815, which refers to specific treatment in awarding benefits for first responders. The court of appeals disagreed with the JCC, ruling in favor of the claimant.
As an EMT, the employer/claimant began working for Polk County Fire Rescue in August 2015. Over the course of her employment, she witnessed multiple horrific incidents in the course of carrying out her official duties. Many of these incidents included deaths or serious injuries to women and children. In 2016, she responded to a domestic violence incident where a woman was badly beaten by her boyfriend and subsequently passed away after arriving at a hospital. Over the course of 2017, she responded to multiple fatal incidents involving very young children, one as young as three months old. Again in 2018, she saw multiple horrific and fatal incidents involving young children, including a child as young as two-years-old. By 2016, the claimant began experiencing nightmares and flashbacks, the first potential signs of PTSD. She sought assistance from her critical incidence stress management team before seeking help from a therapist beginning in early 2017. By 2018, she took a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act, as she felt that she could no longer do her job due to the trauma. Following the leave, her condition did not improve, and she never returned to work.
While filing for benefits, the JCC denied the employee’s claim for two reasons, stating (1) that as she did not have an accident on the date of her claim, she was not eligible for benefits under section 112.1815, and (2) that her substantive rights for claims were fixed as of the last “qualifying event” she experienced on the job. The appeals court opinion addresses both parts of the JCC argument, disagreeing with the analysis. On the first issue, the appeals court found that due to the nature of the claimant’s disability, the date or dates that she suffered exposure to the disease was not relevant to determine the date of the accidents in the context of this case. On the second issue, the appeals court ruled that the JCC misinterpreted the issue of timing, stating that there was an imputed contractual entitlement to compensation for financial loss as a result of her occupational disease regardless of the date in this case.