A deputy sheriff is not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for his mental distress that followed his shooting of a suspect in the course of his job, the South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled.
The court said using deadly force is an expected and standard part of being a sheriff and is “not an unusual or extraordinary employment condition” that might qualify for workers’ compensation under the state’s restricted coverage for purely mental injuries.
In its 3-2 ruling Brandon Bentley v. Spartanburg County, and S.C. Association of Counties SIF, written by Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal, the high court upheld a workers’ compensation commissioner and appeals panel.
Justice Toal’s opinion noted that a majority of states now recognize the compensability of purely mental injuries, although a number, including South Carolina, restrict recovery by requiring that the employee must show that the employment conditions causing the stress, mental injury, or mental illness were extraordinary and unusual in comparison to the normal conditions of the particular employment. South Carolina workers must also show medical evidence of the causation between the stress, mental injury, or mental illness, and the stressful employment conditions.
On Oct. 21, 2009, Bentley was on road patrol when he was dispatched to a residence in Spartanburg following a call involving disturbances between neighbors. Events at the home led to Bentley shooting a man who threatened his life.
Following this incident, he began to suffer anxiety and depression and sought treatment. Based on his psychological symptoms, his psychiatrist and psychologist concluded that Bentley was unable to work.
He filed for workers’ compensation benefits in March, 2010 but was denied after a hearing. The single commissioner found that the shooting event was not an unusual or extraordinary condition of his work, and he had not suffered a compensable mental injury by accident arising out of his employment. This commissioner noted that deputies received training on the use of deadly force and that Bentley admitted he knew he would sometimes be required to use deadly force in the course and scope of his employment.
Bentley appealed to the appellate panel, which affirmed the commissioner’s order. Bentley then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Bentley argued that any killing of another human being is unusual and statistics show that the killing of suspects by a Spartanburg County deputy sheriff occurred only about once a year, making a shooting and killing an unusual and extraordinary event.
However the court rejected this approach because it said it takes the shooting out of the particular work context of Bentley’s job as a sheriff. The court also said that in defining what constitutes unusual and extraordinary, the statute and case law speak of conditions of employment and not the frequency of an event occurring.
The high court agreed with the appellate panel that the issue is whether using deadly force, which may result in fatalities, is a standard or necessary condition of a deputy sheriff’s job, not how frequently the use of deadly force results in fatalities.
Bentley testified that he “might be in a situation where he might have to shoot someone,” and there were other testimonies that officers were aware of the possibility that they might be required to shoot and kill. Bentley’s training in the use of deadly force, and the police department’s policy addressing when deadly force should be used, supported the conclusion that the Oct. 21, 2009 shooting incident was not extraordinary and unusual, but was a standard and necessary condition of a deputy sheriff’s job, the court said.
Even while denying the benefits, Toal’s decision urged the state’s lawmakers to consider “updating” the state’s current requirements on mental benefits “to account for the scientific and technological progress in medicine and psychology.”
But, Justice Toal added, the court must rule according to the current statute.
Toal was joined in the majority by Justices Costa M. Pleicones and John W. Kittredge. Justices Kaye G. Hearn and Donald Beatty dissented.