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Negligent and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Claims Under the Workers' Compensation Act

Issues:Negligent and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Claims Under the Workers' Compensation Act
Case Name:Brooks v. Chris Mendoza and Denny's Inc., d/b/a Denny's Restaurant, United States District Court, decided March 25, 2002
Synopsis:FACTS: The claimant alleged intentional and/or infliction of emotional distress from sexual harassment in the work place. Alleged harassment by supervisor who taunted the claimant with a vibrating object in his pants, pursuing the claimant in the restaurant while uttering obscenities, despite her protests.

DECISION: The United States District Court concluded that the claimant's supervisor's actions were personal in nature and sufficiently disconnected from the work situation as to fit within the personal animus exception to the Workers' Compensation Act. The District Court determined that the claimant's intention infliction of emotional distress civil claim was not preempted by the Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Act and the claimant could maintain a civil action against her supervisor and employer.

As to the claimant's assertion that she could file a civil suit for negligent infliction of emotional distress, the Court concluded that any civil claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress which arises out of an employment relationship is barred by the Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Act. In other words, claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress do not fall within the personal animus exception. Thus, the claimant can maintain a workers' compensation claim alleging negligent infliction of emotional distress (mental stress injury), but will be precluded from alleging an intentional action as the basis for a mental stress work comp injury.

Practice Points: When reviewing claims that arise for alleged mental stress injuries, scrutiny of the facts of the case is essential to determine if you have an intentional or negligent action which allegedly takes place in the work setting. Intentional sexual harassment falls within the affirmative defense provision of the Workers' Compensation Act. This defense of personal animosity (personal animus) can be invoked where actions of the co-worker are clearly personal in nature.

Unfortunately, negligent infliction of emotional distress claims are viable in a workers' compensation context but such claims would be subject to the burden of proof for mental stress injuries. The claimant would need to demonstrate that the mental stress condition arose out of an abnormal work condition.

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