A Capehart Scatchard Blog

Occupational Stress – Stroka v. United Airlines

By on July 7, 2008 in Claims with 0 Comments

When an employee’s worrying is not based on events which actually took place involving the employee but only on what might have happened to the employee, that kind of worrying has been found not compensable. An example is the case of Stroka v. United Airlines, 364 N.J. Super. 333 (App. Div. 2003), certif. denied, 179 N.J. 313 (2004). Kim Stroka worked as a flight attendant for United Airlines. Stroka was originally scheduled to work on September 11, 2001, but she requested the day off several days earlier to pick up her daughter from school.

On September 11, 2001, she went bowling while her daughter was in school. She heard about the World Trade Center attacks while she was bowling. Later her husband, who was also a flight attendant and was working that day, called Stroka to advise her that the plane which crashed in Pennsylvania was the one she was supposed to be flying. Petitioner wept, trembled, and had difficulty sleeping over the next few days. She could not eat for a while, but later she engaged in binge eating.

Petitioner began psychiatric treatment on September 24, 2001 with Dr. Stephen Clarfield for post-traumatic stress syndrome. She told her doctor that she felt guilty that she was alive, while someone else in her place had been killed.

Petitioner did not return to work and continued to treat on a biweekly basis. She filed a claim petition seeking medical and temporary disability benefits. Petitioner testified that her company provided her with training regarding hijackings. Flight attendants viewed a security video and read a Federal Aviation Administration handbook on how to deal with a hijacking crisis.

The judge of compensation found that the petitioner’s stress condition was work-related and awarded medical and temporary disability benefits to the petitioner. As of the time of trial, petitioner was still fearful and was having panic attacks when she would see a runway.

United appealed the decision and argued that petitioner’s psychiatric condition did not arise from work. The Appellate Division agreed:

Petitioner’s post-traumatic stress syndrome originated not while she was at work, but while she was taking a day off. Nothing happened while she was working which led to her current condition. She was not working at the time Flight 93 crashed, nor at the time she heard the news of the crash. In fact, her reaction to the event occurred because she was not working, not because she was working. If we were to accept petitioner’s argument, off-duty police officers, firefighters, and others whose jobs are inherently risky could seek compensation benefits when a fellow employee was injured or killed while taking that employee’s place. No authority exists to support that position.

Id. at 342.

This case is an important one because it delineates a line between compensable occupational stress and non-compensable occupational stress. It is a sensible decision because an employer could not possibly insure for risks of injuries occurring in the minds of workers who were not actually working when traumatic events took place.

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John H. Geaney

About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, a shareholder and co-chair of Capehart Scatchard's Workers' Compensation department, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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