Florida First District Court of Appeal Rules Florida Statute Clearly States Time Period for Filing PTSD Worker’s Compensation Claims by First Responders

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Under Florida workers’ compensation law, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) is a compensable occupational disease when suffered by first responders; however the PTSD must result from a qualifying event, such as witnessing the death of a minor or the death of a person who was injured by grievous bodily harm of a nature that shocks the conscience.[1]
 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD generally begins within three months of a traumatic event. Though, sometimes PTSD symptoms do not begin until years later. As such, it is critical to understand the timelines surrounding the provision of notice when determining whether to accept a PTSD claim as compensable.

Pursuant to the statute,[2] notice of a claim for compensable PTSD is measured from the date of the qualifying event or from the date of manifestation of the disorder, whichever is later. However, the statute also requires that a claim for PTSD is noticed within 52-weeks of the qualifying event. Recently in Palm Beach Cty. Fire Rescue v. Wilkes, the First District Court of Appeal analyzed what it means to give timely notice under this provision of the statute.[3]

In Wilkes, the employer/servicing agent (“E/SA”) appealed the decision of the judge of compensation claims, which held that the claimant was entitled to the payment of indemnity benefits after reporting that he was suffering from PTSD. The claimant witnessed the rescue of a young boy who ultimately drowned in 2015. There was no dispute that this was a qualifying event under the statute. The claimant continued to work as a first responder after the event for a few years. He experienced problems with distractedness, anxiety, and depression. In the Spring of 2019, the claimant went underwater diving with friends. Subsequently, he dreamt that the young boy who drowned was his son. He sought treatment and was diagnosed with PTSD at the end of May of 2019 and soon after was placed on sick leave. On August 5, 2019, he filed a petition for benefits requesting indemnity benefits under the PTSD statute.

The JCC awarded the claimant indemnity benefits and found that the claim was timely, as it was filed within 52 weeks of the manifestation of the PTSD diagnosis. The E/SA argued on appeal that the JCC misinterpreted the statutory language regarding the time when notice must be given. The appellate court agreed and found that the statute clearly stated that a claim must be properly noticed within 52 weeks of the qualifying event. In this case, the claim should have been filed in 2016.

Furthermore, the First District Court of Appeal held that the time required for giving notice of a PTSD claim operates as a statute of repose.[4] Accordingly, once the 52 weeks after the qualifying event have run, the cause of action ceases to exist. As such, the court reversed the JCC’s ruling in Wilkes and denied the award of indemnity benefits based on the late notice.[5]

Consequently, in determining if a PTSD claim has been adequately filed, it is imperative to determine the date of the qualifying event. If the claim is made after 52 weeks from the qualifying event, the claim is barred under the Florida statute of repose, regardless of when symptoms began to manifest or when the employee became disabled.

[1]See Fla. Stat. § 112.1815(5)(a)(2)(a-k) for the complete list of qualifying events.

[2]See Fla. Stat. § 112.1815(5)(d).

[3]See Palm Beach Cty. Fire Rescue v. Wilkes, 2020 Fla. App. LEXIS 177726 (Fla. 1st DCA 2020).

[4]A statute of repose bars a cause of action, for a period of time, after the running of the date of an event specified in the statute.

[5]Rehearing was denied on January 20, 2021.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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