Secretary wins case over emotional injury Court rules woman due compensation

March 26, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

The state's highest court ruled for the first time yesterday that employees can receive workers' compensation benefits for emotional injuries.

The decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals came in the case of a secretary who was traumatized when a 3-ton beam crashed through a ceiling and landed 5 feet from her desk.

Carol Belcher, the secretary, said she has been terrified of thunder and similar loud noises since the incident in April 1991.

"I have reoccurring nightmares still, and I cannot tolerate thunderstorms, especially if I'm asleep," said Ms. Belcher, 44, of Baltimore. "It's like it's happening all over again."

She was working at T. Rowe Price Foundation Inc. in Baltimore, where she remains employed, when the construction accident occurred. Because her injuries were psychological, she was denied benefits by the Workers' Compensation Commission.

The unanimous decision by the appeals court sends Ms. Belcher's case back to the commission.

In an opinion written by retired Judge Charles E. Orth Jr., the court ruled that the Workers' Compensation Act permits employees to receive benefits for emotional injuries.

"We have come to appreciate that a mind may be injured as well as a body maimed," Judge Orth said.

Three of the seven judges said Ms. Belcher was entitled to benefits only because she suffered emotional injuries that had physical symptoms such as headaches, chest pain and heart palpitations. They chided the four-member majority for expanding benefits.

"The General Assembly's ongoing interest in, and concern over, the costs of workers' compensation dictate judicial restraint rather than an expansion of benefits by judicial fiat," Judge Lawrence F. Rodowsky wrote in a concurring opinion.

Alan M. Carlo, a lawyer for T. Rowe Price Foundation, which had argued against compensation, said he could not predict whether the ruling would lead to more claims for emotional injuries.

"As far as our case is concerned, we're disappointed about what the court has done," Mr. Carlo said.

Jeff E. Messing, an attorney for Ms. Belcher, said that under the decision, the Workers' Compensation Commission would now use the same definition of "injury" as the state courts.

Mr. Messing said the ruling would enable Ms. Belcher to be compensated if she is unable to work because of emotional stress related to the 1991 incident.

Ms. Belcher returned to her job two workdays after the beam fell.

"I came back under a lot of medication," she said. "I'm a single mother with two young children who depend on me. So I took the medication and did what I have to do."

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