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Smith v. Carver County

Supreme Court of Minnesota

July 17, 2019

Chadd A. Smith, Respondent,
v.
Carver County and Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust, Relators.

          Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Mary E. Boyce, Ashley N. Biermann, Meuser Law Office, P.A., Eden Prairie, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Timothy P. Jung, Katie H. Storms, Joao C.J.G. de Medeiros, Lind, Jensen, Sullivan & Peterson, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for relators.

          Jeffrey J. Lindquist, Gries Lenhardt Allen, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Defense Lawyers Association.

         SYLLABUS

         1. In a claim for workers' compensation benefits where the alleged injury is post-traumatic stress disorder arising out of and in the course of employment, Minnesota Statutes § 176.011, subd. 15(d) (2018), requires the employee to prove that the employee has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist and that the diagnosing professional used the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in making a diagnosis. The statute does not require a compensation judge to conduct an independent assessment to verify that the diagnosis of a psychologist or psychiatrist conforms to the PTSD criteria set forth in the DSM before accepting the expert's diagnosis.

         2. The Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals erred by reversing the compensation judge's choice between two competing medical experts because the expert opinion adopted by the compensation judge had an adequate factual foundation for the diagnosis.

         Reversed.

          OPINION

          THISSEN, JUSTICE.

         This case requires us to interpret a 2013 amendment to the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 176.001-.862 (2018), which expanded the Act to allow injured workers to recover workers' compensation benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that arises out of and in the course of employment. The amendment permits recovery for a "mental impairment," see Minn. Stat. § 176.011, subd. 16, defined as "a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder by a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist," id., subd. 15(d)." '[P]ost-traumatic stress disorder' means the condition as described in the most recently published edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by the American Psychiatric Association," id., which in its current version is commonly known as the DSM-5. See Am. Psychiatric Ass'n, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed. 2013).

         Respondent Chadd Smith, a former deputy sheriff for relator Carver County, seeks workers' compensation benefits for PTSD, which he claims resulted from numerous traumatic incidents that he experienced while working. The County denied responsibility. Two licensed psychologists assessed Smith-one diagnosed Smith with PTSD; the other did not. The compensation judge found the psychologist who did not diagnose Smith with PTSD to be more persuasive, adopted that psychologist's report, and dismissed Smith's claim petition.

         The Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals (WCCA) reversed. Smith v. Carver County, No. WC18-6180, 2019 WL 235685, at *1 (Minn. WCCA Jan. 4, 2019). The WCCA determined that the 2013 amendment requires that a compensation judge conduct an independent assessment to verify that the diagnosis of a psychologist or psychiatrist conforms to the PTSD criteria in the DSM-5 before accepting the expert's diagnosis. See id. at *5. We reverse the decision of the WCCA and reinstate the compensation judge's decision.

         FACTS

         Smith worked as a deputy sheriff with the Carver County Sheriff's Office for nearly 10 years, from July 2006 through June 2016. Before working as a deputy sheriff, Smith had never been diagnosed with, treated for, or had any restrictions related to PTSD. Before beginning his work with the County, Smith underwent a pre-employment examination and was deemed physically and mentally fit to work as a deputy sheriff.

         As part of his job as a Carver County deputy sheriff, Smith witnessed numerous situations involving death and injury, including graphic crime scenes, vehicle accidents, homicides, suicides, shootings, assaults, and domestic abuse situations. It is difficult for a person who is not a law enforcement officer or first responder to overstate the traumatic nature of the situations Smith faced. For example, Smith responded to a vehicular accident where a driver was crushed by a 100, 000-pound rock crusher and helped to recover the victim's remains for the medical examiner. Smith was called to the scene of a suicide; upon arrival, he realized that the victim-who had died from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head-was his high school classmate. Just months after that case, Smith was tasked with reporting the death of a different high school friend to the friend's next of kin, an experience he understandably described as "extremely distress[ing] and overwhelm[ing]." Smith has responded to a vehicular accident where a part of the victim's body came off in his hands while administering first aid; a vehicular fire where he and other emergency personnel were unable to control the blaze and were unable to save the victim trapped in the ...


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