Appeals Ct rejects Workplace Stress Injury

Despite mounting evidence that chronic workplace stress leads to potentially severe physical harm, a federal appeals court has ruled that work related stress is not a “physical peril.”

The  U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleven Circuit, based in Atlanta, recently overturned a $2.4 million jury award to William C. Skye, formerly chief mate of a commercial vessel,  the “Sealand Pride,” for injuries stemming from excessive work hours and an erratic sleep schedule. Skye had  filed suit under the Jones Act, which provides a cause of action in negligence for a seaman personally injured “in the course of employment.”

Skye said his employer, Maersk Line Limited Corp., in a cost saving measure, failed to provide him with an adequate crew and negligently saddled him with “excessive duties and duty time” such that he was “overworked to the point of fatigue.”

A cardiologist testified at Skye’s trial that his arduous work schedule and lack of sleep “were a substantial contribution” to his diagnosis of  left ventricular hypertrophy. The cardiologist said long working hours and constant stress causes workers to secrete large amounts of adrenaline as part of a “fight or flight” response “and that, in turn, can lead to left ventricular hypertrophy.”

In its ruling, the appeals court said that “[a]n arduous work schedule and an irregular sleep schedule are not physical perils. That Skye developed a ‘physical injury’ is no matter; the cause of his injury was work-related stress.”

The appeals court relied upon  a 20-year-old decision of the U.S. Supreme Court,  Consolidated Rail Corp. v. Gottshall, 512 U.S. 532, 114 S. Ct. 2396 (1994).  In that case, the Court said the Federal Employers’ Liability Act does not compensate for “stress arising in the ordinary course of employment.”  The Supreme Court said an employer is not liable unless their negligent conduct threatens employees “imminently with physical impact.”

The  appeals court ruled that compensating Skye for his injury would potentially lead to a flood of trivial lawsuits and the possibility of fraudulent claims “because there is no way to predict what effect a stressful work environment – compared to a physical accident such as an exploding boiler – would have on any given employee.”

Stress Injuries

There is mounting evidence linking chronic workplace stress with potentially serious physical injuries.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that  evidence is “rapidly accumulating to suggest that stress plays an important role in several types of chronic health problems-especially cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and psychological disorders.”  The CDC has many recommendations to decrease stress in the workplace, including the elimination of  chronic overtime and excessive work.

In 2004, the CDC conducted an integrative review of 52 recently published research reports that examine the associations between long working hours and illnesses, injuries, health behaviors, and performance. The review found a pattern of deteriorating performance on psycho-physiological tests as well as injuries while working long hours, particularly when 12-hour shifts were combined with other work related demands.

According to the American Institute of Stress:  “Increased levels of job stress as assessed by the perception of having little control but lots of demands have been demonstrated to be associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension and other disorders.”

Science Daily reports on a 2014 study by the German Research Centre for Environmental Health finding that stress at work can have a “negative impact on the cardiovascular system and the metabolism. Stress, which is transmitted by direct and indirect signaling pathways, leads to an inflammatory response in the body, which can trigger cardiovascular diseases, amongst others.”

The appeals court reversed the denial of the motion of Maersk for a judgment as a matter of law and rendered the judgment in favor of Maersk.

The district court had reduced the jury’s damage awarded to $590,574 after finding that Skye also was negligent.