State Law Change Allows First Responders to Win L&I PTSD Claims

Exhausted firefighter rests with hand over head.

We tend to associate post traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) with battles overseas; its roots tied to the First World War when returning soldiers were diagnosed with “shell shock.” That of course is PTSD; however, it isn’t limited to soldiers, nor is it limited to war.

Right in our own communities, first responders are at greater risk and, in fact, do suffer from PTSD as an unpleasant side effect of their job. Yet for decades the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) has denied first responders’ claims of PTSD.

Existing PTSD Law in Washington

Existing industrial insurance law in Washington will not allow PTSD claims based on cumulative psychological traumas. Cumulative traumas are incidents which occur over time and combine to cause severe mental problems. In other words, a span of traumatic experiences that manifest later in someone’s career is not considered equivalent to a singular trauma-inducing event. This stifling law is still in effect for all workers in Washington state except, now, for first responders.

To understand the new PTSD First Responder Law and what L&I is doing to traumatized workers in Washington state, it helps to understand that L&I classifies all on the job claims as either an injury or an occupational disease.

  • An injury is a one-time event occurring suddenly and traumatically. (This is covered in detail on my firm website under injury). Injury PTSD has always been allowable as an L&I claim.
  • An occupational disease is different than an injury, in that it develops over time. (This is also covered in further detail under occupational disease.) L&I has not until now allowed claims of occupational disease PTSD.

The New First Responder PTSD Law

The new law—SB 6214, which went into effect June 2018—allows L&I PTSD claims caused by cumulative stress as an occupational disease for most first responders (but not other occupations). This means first responders can now file and be successful with a cumulative trauma PTSD claim.

It gets better—the new law goes much further by creating a rebuttable presumption that cumulative stress for first responders is an occupational disease; which is a huge benefit to first responders. Why is this presumption helpful? As the law was previously written, without a presumption a first responder had to prove the medical details of their PTSD claim. This required psychiatric or psychological testimony, which is expensive and hard to get.

Under the new law, the first responder first shows they have PTSD, then that medical condition will be presumed to be related to their job. If the employer chooses to fight the claim, the employer will have to prove that there is no PTSD or that the PTSD is not job related.

There are some important details to keep in mind, which may limit the scope of the new legislation:

  • PTSD means a disorder that meets the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress specified by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, or in a later edition as adopted by L&I rule.
  • The cause of the PTSD is important. Even under this new law, PTSD for first responders is excluded as an occupational disease if the condition is directly related to disciplinary action, work evaluations, job transfer, layoff, demotion, or termination taken in good faith by the employer.
  • For the rebuttable presumption to apply, PTSD must develop after the individual has served at least 10 years. This section appears to nevertheless allow the first responder’s PTSD to be a valid occupational disease, only without the helpful presumption.
  • For the rebuttable presumption to apply to workers hired after the effective date of the legislation, that worker must at the time of hire submit to an employer-sponsored exam which rules out PTSD. If no exam is provided by the employer, then there is no corresponding requirement.
  • A first responder is:
    • An EMT, generally defined as a full-time city or county emergency medical technician.
    • A law enforcement officer, probably defined as full-time commissioned county sheriffs, deputy sheriffs, or city police.
    • A firefighter as previously enumerated in RCW 51.32.185, together with some additional supervisors.

Why Do First Responders Get a Special Law That Applies Only to Them?

First responders do the heavy lifting in the world of human tragedy. Every time a medic picks up another lifeless body from a tragic accident, some of that tragedy rubs off on the medic. Every time a fireman rescues and consoles a family that has lost everything to a fire, it chokes up the firefighter, too. Each time a police officer risks their life to restore law and order, that officer’s life thereafter is negatively impacted. Those experiences create real and lasting stressful changes in first responders. Over time these stressful experiences add up to occupational disease PTSD.

First responders pay a price for what they do. The price they pay is on-the-job PTSD. They deserve L&I benefits and now they can get those benefits.