In a previous post, we covered Landry v. KBR’s implications for burn pit victims. That same case also has tremendous meaning for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder victims.
During her service in Mosul, Specialist Veronica Landry dealt with many traumatic events, even though she was a morale officer who organized karaoke sing-alongs and other events. At one such party, enemy mortar fire struck the dining hall. Specialist Landry performed emergency CPR on a badly-wounded soldier for almost 30 minutes; the soldier later died. She later sought treatment from the Employee Assistance Program, complaining of classic PTSD symptoms like heightened awareness, flashbacks, and sleeplessness. After she returned stateside, she received outpatient treatment at Fort Polk, Louisiana for about two years.
Administrative Law Judge Christopher Larsen agreed that Specialist Landry sustained PTSD as part of her service and that she was therefore eligible for compensation under the Defense Base Act. However, the ALJ denied her claim, ruling that her injury was not “disabling.”
A Background on Combat-Related Brain Injuries
As long as combat-related brain injuries have been around, one would think that doctors would have developed a standardized treatment approach to these wounds. But even now, doctors struggle to understand the nature of brain injuries. We do know that people emerge from combat as different people. That universality suggests that everyone sustains a brain injury during combat but that the degree varies significantly.
Here in America, these injuries were almost completely unheard of, or at least almost completely undocumented, through the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and even the Mexican War. As battlefield casualties mounted in the Civil War, sporadic reports of “camp fever” appeared. At the time, doctors dismissed the condition as an advanced form of “nostalgia,” which was an acute case of homesickness common in ancient armies.
By World War I, the world’s armies had replaced the TNP in their ordinance with TNT. Trinitrophenol, or picric acid, is essentially the same thing that is in fireworks. Trinitrotoluene is much more explosive and much more powerful, which is why it is still used today.
PTSD victims in the Great War were diagnosed with shell shock. As seen in recently-uncovered videos like this one, PTSD victims must deal with some challenging symptoms. However, they almost always improve significantly after extensive physical therapy. Both these things are still true today.
Attitudes toward PTSD changed little by World War II. General George Patton forbade soldiers suffering from “battle fatigue” to seek treatment at military hospitals. He was not alone in his misunderstandings, as this same attitude is still common today.
A generation later, after the Vietnam War, public opinion changed radically. Mostly due to movies like The Deer Hunter and Rambo, many people believed that Vietnam veterans were deranged lunatics. That prejudice prevented many veterans from seeking treatment for their PTSD. Even now, some employers are wary of combat veterans for much the same reason.
PTSD and Injury Compensation
Mostly because this injury is so poorly defined, governments have struggled to provide proper recognition of this occupational disease. But the winds of change may be blowing favorably.
Here in Florida, lawmakers are considering changes to workers’ compensation. This system provides compensation similar to the benefits available under the Defense Base Act. Thankfully, the Sunshine State is not nearly as violent as Iraq. But there have been several high-profile mass shootings in Florida over the past few years.
So, a new law is making its way through the legislature. This provision would extend workers’ compensation benefits to first responders who suffer from PTSD. The Florida League of Cities recently dropped its opposition to this plan, a move which probably clears the way for final passage.
Most first responders experience PTSD after a particularly tragic episode, such as the Pulse Nightclub shooting in June 2016 or the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February 2018. Others develop PTSD after a long series of smaller incidents, such as EMT techs who care for many gunshot victims. So, DBA compensation may be available for both kinds of PTSD victims.
Another recent development comes from the opposite side of the continent, and this one is even more relevant to private military contractors with PTSD. In April 2016, the Royal Canadian Legion ended the PTSD monicker and replaced it with Operational Stress Injury. The organization wanted “to de-stigmatize OSI so that those suffering and their families can get the help that they need,” according to Legion President Tom Eagles. Servicemember veterans diagnosed with OSI are eligible for the Médaille du Sacrifice (Sacrifice Medal), which is like a Purple Heart.
The Legion had not changed its rules in this way since 1925. The move further cements PTSD as a physical injury as opposed to a random processing disorder.
Benefits Available to Iraq and Afghanistan PTSD Victims
Since it is a physical brain injury which physical therapy can improve, private military contractor PTSD victims may be eligible for compensation for both their lost wages and medical expenses.
Every case is different, but most follow the same general outline. After victims contact our office and provide necessary details about their injuries, we file claims on their behalf with the US Department of Labor (DOL). After the insurance company is notified by the DOL, it then has 30 days to either pay the claim or deny it. Not surprisingly, they almost always do the latter.
As highlighted in the Landry case, the injury need not be directly related to job duties. Specialist Landry was a morale officer and not an EMT. Also as highlighted in the above case, it is important to collect as much evidence as possible regarding injury severity. There is no presumption of disability.
In a few cases, the DOL holds an Informal Conference designed to bring the parties together and to hopefully resolve any differences on an informal basis. The DOL cannot order the insurance company to do anything and can only issue recommendations, most often in favor of the injured overseas contractor. When the insurance company fails to abide by these recommendations, as they most often do, the attorney is then able to file a request for a trial, called a Formal Hearing.
Typically, if the DOL does not schedule an Informal Conference, the attorney immediately files requests for formal hearings. These trial-like procedures take place in front of an Administrative Law Judge. Much like the Landry ALJ, the Defense Base Act ALJ listens to all the evidence and all the arguments of counsel. Then, the ALJ issues a written opinion that is normally appealable.
Contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen & Frankel, P.A. for more information about the benefits available under the DBA.