Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Addresses Psychological Compensation Resulting from Physical Injuries

Claims for workers’ compensation benefits, as well as claims arising under the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act (LHWCA) and the Defense Base Act (DBA), often hinge upon determining causation between a claimant’s injury and the alleged work-related accident.

Recently, in Brown v. Entertainment Partners, LLC and AIG, 19-CA-118 (La. App. 5 Cir. 10/2/19), the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that psychological injuries resulting from a physical work-related accident must be directly related in order to be considered compensable under the Act. When the causation of psychological injuries could be attributed to other extenuating circumstances, Louisiana courts place the burden of proof on the plaintiff to establish a direct link between the date of injury and the date of manifestation of psychological conditions.

Brown v. Entertainment Partners, LLC and AIG –  Background

By way of background, plaintiff, Nikki Brown, was employed as a makeup artist for defendant, Entertainment Partners, LLC, on a film set in New Orleans, Louisiana. On August 31, 2015, plaintiff was working in the course and scope of her employment when she stepped into a pothole on the movie set and twisted her left foot. Plaintiff contended this twisting caused her to injure her left ankle, left calf, and left knee in addition to exacerbating a pre-existing back condition. Further, plaintiff claimed injury to her right knee and noted an increase in blood pressure, anxiety, and depression as a result of her accident. On December 15, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Disputed Claim for Compensation against her employer and its Carrier, AIG.

Defense Contested Causal Relationship Between Plaintiff’s Workplace Accident and Stipulated Injuries

At trial, defendants conceded that plaintiff injured her left ankle and left calf as a result of her accident. However, defendants contested the causal relationship between plaintiff’s workplace accident and her other stipulated injuries, pointing at plaintiff’s prior work-related injuries as the direct cause. From 2011 through 2015, plaintiff received benefits resulting from a previous work-related accident in which she sustained a lower-back injury after falling out of van on the set of another movie. Plaintiff admitted suffering from back pain prior to the sustaining the injury subject of the immediate action, but argued this was “a different kind of pain” following the accident in 2015. Subsequently in 2016, plaintiff was exiting a van on the set of another when she heard a pop on her right side. Plaintiff testified that the injury she sustained in 2016 caused an exacerbation of pain in her lower back, right knee, right buttocks, and muscle spasms.

In addition to her physical injuries, plaintiff testified that she became depressed and anxious since she was unable to perform her normal daily activities or maintain social relationships as a result of her 2015 injuries. Dr. Paul Hubbell, an expert in interventional pain management, testified that when he saw plaintiff in June of 2015 her anxiety and depression were “under poor control.” Dr. Hubbell further opined that it was difficult to determine the actual intensity of the pain plaintiff was suffering from as a result of her physical injuries because of the severity of her psychological condition.

Trial Court’s Findings

On May 7, 2018, the court found plaintiff did not meet her burden of proving her low back pain, right knee injury, increased blood pressure, anxiety, and depression were caused by the August 31, 2015 accident and denied her claim for benefits as to these injuries and conditions. Plaintiff then filed an appeal with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals seeking reversal of the trial court’s decision in the hopes of recovering workers’ compensation benefits for the contested injuries.

Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds Trial Court’s finding

On appeal, plaintiff contended the trial court erred in finding that her right knee injury, lower back injuries, and psychological injuries were not causally related to the August 31, 2015 work-place accident. With regards to plaintiff’s first two assignments of error, the Fifth Circuit reasoned that plaintiff failed to establish a causal relationship between the accident on August 31, 2015 and her right knee and lower back injuries. Regarding her psychological injuries, plaintiff argued that while she began suffering from anxiety and depression following her 2011 work-place accident, her conditions intensified after the August 31, 2015 accident. Defendants noted that plaintiff did not begin taking blood pressure medication until 2017, and that therefore the cause of needing the medication was speculative, as well as identifying other personal issues contributing to plaintiff’s condition.

Since the burden of proof is on the plaintiff to prove a causal connection between a work-related accident and a resulting disability by a preponderance of the evidence, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s ruling and found plaintiff failed to establish a direct link between her psychological condition and her accident on August 31, 2015. Based on plaintiff’s diagnosis following her initial accident in 2011, as well as the subsequent injuries she sustained in 2016 and other personal matters that contributed to her psychological condition, the Fifth Circuit held that plaintiff failed to meet her burden in establishing a direct link of causation.