Matthews v. City of Tucson (D2 7.9.21)

Workmen’s compensation law plays in its own field and is normally not the subject of our review, but this one raises an interesting issue. Timothy Matthews worked as a police officer for the City of Tucson Police Department for 18 years. In 2018 he responded to a domestic violence call of a barricaded man. He was stationed a block away at a command post and watched this all transpire from a live video camera. The barricaded man shot himself and crawled out of the garage and died. Matthews was assigned to inspect the body and photograph the scene.

A few months later he filed a workmen’s compensation claim based on a diagnosis of PTSD. Under workmen’s compensation statutes, an employee can recover for emotional distress only when an event is considered unexpected, unusual or extraordinary. As discussed earlier this year by the Arizona Supreme Court, this standard is considered from the standpoint of a reasonable employee with the same or similar job duties and training rather than the individual employee’s subjective reaction to an event. The ALJ determined this incident was not an unexpected, unusual or extraordinary event for a law enforcement officer.

The interesting part is the challenge to the mental injury statute itself. Matthews argued the statute violates Arizona Constitution Art. 18 Sec. 8 states in part: “[I]f in the course of such employment personal injury to or death of any such workman from any accident arising out of and in the course of, such employment, is caused in whole, or in part, or is contributed to, by a necessary risk or danger of such employment, or a necessary risk or danger inherent in the nature thereof . .” Pretty broad. Matthews further argued the mental injury statute injects an assumption of the risk defense by requiring an event to be unusual, unexpected, or extraordinary because it allows his employer to argue he knew the job was dangerous when he became a police officer. The court rejects this concluding, in part, the Arizona Constitution requires the injury be an “accident” and the legislature properly defined what that means for mental health injuries. But you must read the dissent. Judge Eckerstrom writes if a mental injury is caused by a risk or danger of employment, it should be compensated if those injuries are directly caused by a known or expected hazards of employment. The Arizona Supreme has avoided this exact question in the past, and another opportunity has just been handed to it.

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