On June 18, 2017, John France, a 35-year law enforcement veteran, and Deputy Cole LaBonte responded to a call that would change France’s life. The call was for Jacob Brown, a military vet with PTSD who was in danger of committing suicide.
According to Arizona News 12, during the course of events, Brown turned his weapon on Officer France and refused to lower it. While Brown’s shotgun safety was still engaged and he never fired the weapon, Officer France feared for his life.
Together, the 2 officers fired 10 rounds from their own service weapons.
The altercation left Brown dead. After an investigation, both Officer France and Deputy LaBonte were cleared of any wrongdoing.
Until this incident, Officer France had never killed a man in the line of duty. Since then, the events have left him suffering with his own PTSD and he sought workers’ compensation in order to get financial assistance for mental health treatment.
Unfortunately, Arizona state law dictates that when mental health issues are claimed for workers’ comp benefits, that the cause for the claim needs to be a situation that causes “unexpected, unusual or extraordinary stress.” Because of this determination, Officer France’s workers’ comp claim was initially denied by the Industrial Commission of Arizona.
France argued that the officer-involved shooting was, in fact, unusual. In his over 3 decade career in law enforcement, this was only his second gun fight.
Officer France appealed the ruling and the Arizona Court of Appeals sided with him. Gila County then appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, which also sided with Officer France on March 2, 2021.
According to Justice Andrew Gould, “It is undisputed that the shooting incident caused France’s PTSD.”
With his workers’ comp battle finally coming to an end, Officer France stated:
“It’s a huge win if we can prevent one other first responder from going through the anguish and everything associated with it that we went through.”
What constitutes ‘unexpected,’ ‘unusual’ or ‘extraordinary’ circumstances?
A challenge with setting an ‘unexpected,’ ‘unusual’ or ‘extraordinary’ requirement for mental health compensation in work injury claims is that these terms can be subjective to the individual. What is unusual or unexpected anr an industry or even one person can be vastly different than for another.
Furthermore, just because law enforcement officers carry weapons, are trained to use them and are sanctioned to do so in the line of duty doesn’t mean that every officer expects to have to fire their weapon—or wants to for that matter.
The “unexpected, unusual or extraordinary stress” determination was adopted by the state Legislature in 1980 after a highway patrolman, Richard Sloss, sought workers’ compensation upon being diagnosed with both gastritis and chronic anxiety.
Presumptive laws and workers’ compensation
Even though first responders put their lives on the line for their communities every day, there are often little to no provisions in place to take care of them in the event they suffer health problems from their employment.
In 2001, Arizona put a presumptive cancer law into place that allows first responders—firefighters in particular—to more easily file work injury claims arising from occupational cancers developed from exposure during the course of their employment.
Eight cancer types are covered by the law and it was intended to lower first responders’ burden of proof so that it wouldn’t be necessary to trace their exposure to a specific event. Some law enforcement officers hope that a similar law can be geared toward them that allows for mental health conditions to be presumptive.
In 2018, Arizona took a step in the right direction to make mental health presumptive with the passage of the Craig Tiger Act. With this act, Arizona law now mandates that cities have to track and report the number of police officers and firefighters who use the trauma counseling resources afforded to them by taxpayer funds.
State law also requires that all public employers are required to pay for up to 36 counseling sessions for employees who suffer trauma while on the job. These traumas can range from the need to utilize deadly force to seeing someone die while on the job.
PTSD and Arizona workers’ compensation
PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is defined as a psychological injury that stems from a traumatic event. Historically, people associate PTSD with military service and, more specifically, war service; however, PTSD can stem from any event that is traumatic.
For those working in law enforcement, PTSD can stem from an officer-involved shooting or witnessing a death while on the job. In Arizona, law enforcement officers can be compensated for PTSD if either of the following 2 statements are true:
- The officer has or is receiving counseling from a licensed counselor who has diagnosed them with PTSD after a traumatic event on the job, or
- The traumatic event was properly reported to their employer and that the claim was reported to the Industrial Commission of Arizona.
Recovering from a serious work-related injury is hard enough, but it is that much harder when the person recovering is fighting an illness that can’t be seen. On top of that, workers’ compensation claims can be difficult to navigate on your own.
For this reason, we invite you to seek the assistance of an experienced workers’ compensation attorney who knows how to handle such challenging cases.