Mental Disabilities & The Michigan Workers’ Compensation Act

We’re here to help our clientele understand the intricacies of Workers’ Compensation law. Recently, The Michigan Workers’ Compensation Act was radically altered. One element of significance is a more objective standard in evaluating mental disability claims. Please do not hesitate to contact our office for further assistance determining the impact of this legislation on your claim management.

The Michigan Workers’ Compensation Act recently underwent radical changes. Among the changes was the language pertaining to work related mental disabilities. Under Section 301(2) of the Workers’ Compensation Act, “Mental disabilities … are compensable if contributed to or aggravated or accelerated by the employment in a significant manner. Mental disabilities are compensable if arising out of actual events of employment, not unfounded perceptions thereof, and if the employee’s perception of the actual events is reasonably grounded in fact or reality.”

The key change lies in the italicized language. The employee’s perception of the actual events which transpired must be “reasonably grounded in fact or reality.” The change is a codification of earlier case law set forth in Robertson v. DaimlerChrylser Corp., 465 Mich. 732 (2002).

Although the initial Act in 1912 did not specifically address mental disabilities, the law has evolved over the years. In 1922, the Michigan Supreme Court held an employee would be covered under the Act if the mental disability arose out of and in the course of employment. Klein v. Darling, 217 Mich. 485 (1922). In Klein, an employee suffered severe emotional shock which led to his death after he mistakenly believed he accidentally killed a coworker. The employee’s decedent was allowed to recover under the Act.

In Rainko v. Webster-Eisenlohr, 306 Mich. 328 (1943), it was held a claimant does not need to prove a physical injury in order to recover benefits. The scope of coverage of mental disabilities was again extended in 1960. At that time, the Court was asked to consider a case in which an employee suffered an emotional collapse as a result of accumulated stress and was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Carter v. General Motors Corp., 361 Mich. 577 (1960). The Court found an employee could recover for a mental disability which arose out of and in the course of employment as a result of workplace stress despite a pre-existing mental condition.

The Michigan Supreme Court later established the “subjective causal nexus” standard. Deziel v. Difco Laboratories, Inc., 403 Mich. 1 (1978). The court allowed benefits to a claimant who honestly perceived a personal injury occurred during his employment and honestly, even though mistakenly, believed himself to be unable to resume normal employment. The dissent found this to be “no standard at all.”

Following Deziel, the Michigan Legislature took action due to the relatively low to non-existent standard applied to mental disabilities. In 1980, the Legislature created the language which remains in effect today. Prior to the recent changes, the Act stated “[ m ] ental disabilities … are compensable if contributed to or aggravated or accelerated by the employment in a significant manner. Mental disabilities are compensable if arising out of actual events of employment, not unfounded perceptions thereof.”

Following the passage of the 1980 amendment, the next major workers’ compensation case to address our topic was Gardner v. Van Buren Public Schools, 445 Mich. 23 (1994). The Gardner Court interpreted the language in the Act to mean that actual events of employment must occur in order to make a claim, rather than imaginary or hallucinatory events. In essence, the Gardner Court dismissed the language “not unfounded perceptions thereof,” reasoning most mentally disabled people have disabilities based on unfounded perceptions of actual events. The Gardner Court allowed a claimant to recover benefits regardless of how incorrectly an event was perceived.

Today’s standard was articulated by the Court in Robertson v. DaimlerChrvlser Corp., 465 Mich. 732 (2002). The Robertson Court required 1) an event connected to employment which actually took place; and 2) the claimant’s perception of the event must be “grounded in fact or reality, not in the delusion or the imagination of an impaired mind.” This standard is considered more objective than past standards, as the magistrate must assess the factual circumstances in terms of how a reasonable person would have viewed them.

Mental disabilities, including whether such a disability exists and whether a causal connection to employment can be established, remain a highly factual determination based on the individual circumstances of a case. However, the Michigan Legislature has now provided us with a relatively objective standard in which to evaluate claims involving mental disability. The attorneys of Grzanka Grit McDonald are experienced in handling these types of cases, and are prepared to assist our clients in evaluating and defending such claims.
- Authored by Elizabeth Yard and Steven Schultz