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Workers’ Compensation: What “Injuries” Are Compensable?

15 January, 2016 - 09:35

Wolfe v. Sibley, Lindsay & Curr Co.

330 N.E.2d 603 (N.Y. 1975)

Wachtler, J.

This appeal involves a claim for workmen’s compensation benefits for the period during which the claimant was incapacitated by severe depression caused by the discovery of her immediate supervisor’s body after he had committed suicide.

The facts as adduced at a hearing before the Workmen’s Compensation Board are uncontroverted. The claimant, Mrs. Diana Wolfe, began her employment with the respondent department store, Sibley, Lindsay & Curr Co. in February, 1968. After working for some time as an investigator in the security department of the store she became secretary to Mr. John Gorman, the security director. It appears from the record that as head of security, Mr. Gorman was subjected to intense pressure, especially during the Christmas holidays. Mrs. Wolfe testified that throughout the several years she worked at Sibley’s Mr. Gorman reacted to this holiday pressure by becoming extremely agitated and nervous. She noted, however, that this anxiety usually disappeared when the holiday season was over. Unfortunately, Mr. Gorman’s nervous condition failed to abate after the 1970 holidays.…

Despite the fact that he followed Mrs. Wolfe’s advice to see a doctor, Mr. Gorman’s mental condition continued to deteriorate. On one occasion he left work at her suggestion because he appeared to be so nervous. This condition persisted until the morning of June 9, 1971 when according to the claimant, Mr. Gorman looked much better and even smiled and ‘tousled her hair’ when she so remarked.

A short time later Mr. Gorman called her on the intercom and asked her to call the police to room 615. Mrs. Wolfe complied with this request and then tried unsuccessfully to reach Mr. Gorman on the intercom. She entered his office to find him lying in a pool of blood caused by a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the head. Mrs. Wolfe became extremely upset and was unable to continue working that day.

She returned to work for one week only to lock herself in her office to avoid the questions of her fellow workers. Her private physician perceiving that she was beset by feelings of guilt referred her to a psychiatrist and recommended that she leave work, which she did. While at home she ruminated about her guilt in failing to prevent the suicide and remained in bed for long periods of time staring at the ceiling. The result was that she became unresponsive to her husband and suffered a weight loss of 20 pounds. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Grinols diagnosed her condition as an acute depressive reaction.

After attempting to treat her in his office Dr. Grinols realized that the severity of her depression mandated hospitalization. Accordingly, the claimant was admitted to the hospital on July 9, 1971 where she remained for two months during which time she received psychotherapy and medication. After she was discharged, Dr. Grinols concluded that there had been no substantial remission in her depression and ruminative guilt and so had her readmitted for electroshock treatment. These treatments lasted for three weeks and were instrumental in her recovery. She was again discharged and, in mid-January, 1972, resumed her employment with Sibley, Lindsay & Curr.

Mrs. Wolfe’s claim for workmen’s compensation was granted by the referee and affirmed by the Workmen’s Compensation Board. On appeal the Appellate Division reversed citing its opinions in [Citations], [concluding]…that mental injury precipitated solely by psychic trauma is not compensable as a matter of law. We do not agree with this conclusion.

Workmen’s compensation, as distinguished from tort liability which is essentially based on fault, is designed to shift the risk of loss of earning capacity caused by industrial accidents from the worker to industry and ultimately the consumer. In light of its beneficial and remedial character the Workmen’s Compensation Law should be construed liberally in favor of the employee [Citation].

Liability under the act is predicated on accidental injury arising out of and in the course of employment.…Applying these concepts to the case at bar we note that there is no issue raised concerning the causal relationship between the occurrence and the injury. The only testimony on this matter was given by Dr. Grinols who stated unequivocally that the discovery of her superior’s body was the competent producing cause of her condition. Nor is there any question as to the absence of physical impact. Accordingly, the focus of our inquiry is whether or not there has been an accidental injury within the meaning of the Workmen’s Compensation Law.

Since there is no statutory definition of this term we turn to the relevant decisions. These may be divided into three categories: (1) psychic trauma which produces physical injury, (2) physical impact which produces psychological injury, and (3) psychic trauma which produces psychological injury. As to the first class our court has consistently recognized the principle that an injury caused by emotional stress or shock may be accidental within the purview of the compensation law. [Citation] Cases falling into the second category have uniformly sustained awards to those incurring nervous or psychological disorders as a result of physical impact [Citation]. As to those cases in the third category the decisions are not as clear.…

We hold today that psychological or nervous injury precipitated by psychic trauma is compensable to the same extent as physical injury. This determination is based on two considerations. First, as noted in the psychiatric testimony there is nothing in the nature of a stress or shock situation which ordains physical as opposed to psychological injury. The determinative factor is the particular vulnerability of an individual by virtue of his physical makeup. In a given situation one person may be susceptible to a heart attack while another may suffer a depressive reaction. In either case the result is the same—the individual is incapable of functioning properly because of an accident and should be compensated under the Workmen’s Compensation Law.

Secondly, having recognized the reliability of identifying psychic trauma as a causative factor of injury in some cases and the reliability by identifying psychological injury as a resultant factor in other cases, we see no reason for limiting recovery in the latter instance to cases involving physical impact. There is nothing talismanic about physical impact.

We would note in passing that this analysis reflects the view of the majority of jurisdictions in this country and England. [Citations]…

Accordingly, the order appealed from should be reversed and the award to the claimant reinstated, with costs.


  1. Why did the appeals court deny workers’ compensation benefits for Wolfe?
  2. On what reasoning did the New York high court reverse?
  3. There was a dissent in this case (not included here). Judge Breitel noted that the evidence was that Mrs. Wolfe had a psychological condition such that her trauma “could never have occurred unless she, to begin with, was extraordinarily vulnerable to severe shock at or away from her place of employment or one produced by accident or injury to those close to her in employment or in her private life.” The judge worried that “one can easily call up a myriad of commonplace occupational pursuits where employees are often exposed to the misfortunes of others which may in the mentally unstable evoke precisely the symptoms which this claimant suffered.” He concluded, “In an era marked by examples of overburdening of socially desirable programs with resultant curtailment or destruction of such programs, a realistic assessment of impact of doctrine is imperative. An overburdening of the compensation system by injudicious and open-ended expansion of compensation benefits, especially for costly, prolonged, and often only ameliorative psychiatric care, cannot but threaten its soundness or that of the enterprises upon which it depends.” What is the concern here?