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Date Posted: 22:34:55 07/04/07 Wed
Prison guard gets workers' comp after negative publicity
Emotional problems deemed work-related
By David Frank
A corrections officer accused by prisoners and later the media of throwing feces in the cell of pedophile priest John Geoghan was entitled to workers' compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder, the Department of Industrial Accidents Reviewing Board has decided.
The Department of Correction argued that the officer's emotional problems were not caused during the course of his employment.
But, in a case of first impression, a majority of the review board disagreed and upheld an administrative judge's decision, which found that the officer was entitled to workers' compensation benefits.
"It is indisputable that had the employee's injury arisen predominately out of threats made by inmates in the prison, his resulting incapacity would have been compensable," said Judge Mark D. Horan, writing on behalf of the board.
He added: "Does the fact that the predominant cause of the employee's incapacity was his reaction to newspaper articles, essentially carrying out the inmates' threats, mandate a different finding? We think not."
The 12-page decision is In Re: Bisazza, Lawyers Weekly No. 25-034-07.
Although the issue had been decided in other jurisdictions, Louis C. deBenedicts of Boston, who represented the officer, said there were no cases in Massachusetts answering the question of whether negative publicity arising out of the workplace could serve as grounds for a workers' compensation claim.
"The precedent that now exists as a result of this case is that if bad publicity coming out of the workplace causes someone to suffer from stress, then they are entitled to compensation," he said.
The lawyer added that the claims in his client's case were covered since all of the media accounts written about the incident, as well as other abuse the officer suffered, were the result of events that took place while he was working at the prison.
"If the negative publicity can be traced back to the actual workplace, then the bottom line now is that they're going to have a compensable case," said deBenedicts.
He said that one of the prison's reasons for fighting the case was to avoid responsibility and place the blame for his client's condition on the media outlets that reported on the Geoghan incident.
"The Department of Correction was worried that, every time a major newspaper would write a story about one of the guards, it would open the flood gates for them to file these stress claims, and I think that was a major reason they were fighting this," he said. "What we now have is a great end result, which sets a good precedent."
Joyce E. Davis, a Newton-based workers' compensation and disability lawyer who reviewed the Bisazza decision, said the Department of Industrial Accidents Reviewing Board focused on the fact that there was a significant relationship between the officer's harm and the workplace.
"I think that in Bisazza, the reviewing board's analysis regarding causation may well be broader than that [previously] propounded by the Supreme Judicial Court," she said.
Davis noted that in the 1965 Collier Case, the court had found that the causal chain was broken where an hour had elapsed between a waitress' refusal to serve a customer liquor and his attack on her as she was walking home.
"By contrast, in Bisazza, the reviewing board indicated that a judge's decision finding compensability will be upheld where there is a direct connection between the employee's work and the resulting harm," she said.
Vincent F. Massey of the Department of Correction could not be reached for comment prior to deadline.
Taunting, threats begin
The employee, Cosmo Bisazza, worked as a corrections officer at MCI-Concord in a housing unit that held sex offenders, pedophiles, murderers and gang members who were segregated from the general prison population.
In March 2002, the officer discovered feces in the cell of John Geoghan, a convicted pedophile who was assigned there. Although Geoghan claimed the officer put the feces there, an internal investigation found his allegations to be unsubstantiated.
In April 2003, Geoghan was transferred to a prison in Shirley, where he was eventually murdered by a fellow inmate.
Immediately after the murder, inmates in the officer's unit began taunting and threatening to "get" him. They also specifically threatened to alert the media about the feces incident.
Within a few days, newspaper articles reported that unnamed officers had harassed Geoghan and thrown feces at him, which caused Bisazza to feel stressed. In September 2003, articles identified him by name as one of the people who had abused Geoghan.
A short time later, the officer's anxiety worsened, which prevented him from eating or sleeping and caused him to experience stomach pains. As a result, he stopped working and began seeing a psychiatrist.
During a hearing related to his request for workers' comp based on a mental or emotional disability, he presented a board-certified psychiatrist who diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, which was a direct result of trauma suffered at work. That trauma consisted of harassment and humiliation by the inmates, as well as the negative publicity he had received.
The judge ruled that the combination of the negative newspaper articles and the inmates' harassment in the days following Geoghan's murder had caused his disability. He awarded the officer compensation, finding that that the negative publicity, not the inmate harassment, was the predominant cause of his disability.
In affirming the lower court's decision, Horan said the officer's emotional injury clearly originated with the threats and taunts of the inmates he was overseeing at the prison.
"The evidence supports the judge's finding that the employee's emotional disability, insofar as it was triggered by his reaction to the newspaper articles, is compensable under our act because 'it can be seen that the whole affair had its origin in the nature and conditions of the employment, so that the employment bore to it the relation of cause to effect,'" he said.
Horan noted that in cases like the officer's, where there was a direct connection between a person's work and the resulting harm, an administrative judge's finding of compensability will be affirmed.
"The judge made explicit findings that the employee's emotional disability, insofar as it began with the inmates' threats and continued with the newspaper articles containing the misconduct allegations, arose both out of and in the course of the employee's employment," Horan observed.