HARRISBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvania's Supreme Court recently overturned a Commonwealth Court order denying the claim of a mine worker who says homosexual comments made by a supervisor triggered his post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ronald Hopton's Workers' Compensation claim was originally granted by the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board, but was taken away in an appeal by RAG Emerald Resources, L.P.
In an opinion written by Justice Max Baer and released Jan. 12, the Court ruled that the Commonwealth Court erred in differing from the ruling of the Workers' Comp board, specifically as to the interpretation of "abnormal working conditions."
"This case involves a series of sexually harassing comments by a supervisor that ... violated the United Mine Worker's Act contract, resulting in disciplinary action by the employer and arguably constitutes criminal harassment," Baer wrote. "We thus agree with the (Workers' Compensation Judge's) legal conclusion that Claimant established that Rossi's comments constituted abnormal working conditions.
"Accordingly, because the WCJ credited the medical testimony establishing a causal link between the statements and the aggravation of Claimant's pre-existing PTSD, we conclude that Claimant has established a compensable injury."
Hopton claimed supervisor Dominic Rossi made numerous remarks requesting homosexual acts, triggering memories of several incidents that Hopton had in the Vietnam War.
Hopton served in the U.S. Army from 1964-1967 and was sent to Vietnam in 1966. He said he witnessed frequent homosexual activity between soldiers and that he was horrified by it.
"Moreover, Claimant relayed that his commanding officer in Vietnam had asked him to engage in homosexual activity in exchange for 'amenities,'" Baer wrote. "This event so disturbed Claimant that he attempted to shoot his commanding officer, but stopped when his commanding officer paced his own gun to Claimant's head."
On July 6, 1994, Hopton claims Rossi requested that he sit next to him in a Jeep, saying "you have a nice butt, a real nice-looking butt, come on up here and sit down next to me." Hopton says he began shaking inside, and claims in another incident that Rossi penetrated his anal cavity with his finger.
Other incidents also helped lead to the PTSD, Hopton said.
"I kept looking at (Rossi), and I would see the (commanding officer), and I would see Rossi," he testified. "Sort of like the Commanding Officer Rossi, Rossi the Commanding Officer. It was getting confusing as to who I was seeing. And all along he was talking, and I can hear him talk. And inside of myself, I started closing up."
Eventually, after the WCJ granted Hopton's claim, the Commonwealth Court heard testimony from other workers and determined that Rossi's actions were no different than the homosexuality-related joking that goes on among mine workers, and that they weren't regular enough to be considered a cause for an injury.
The Supreme Court felt that was not consistent with the WCJ's findings, which were partly based on the testimony of a court-appointed expert who said Rossi's actions were a substantial contributing factor to Hopton's PTSD.
"Thus, we conclude that, to the extent the Commonwealth Court based its holding on the number of comments, without engaging in a totality of the circumstances analysis, it erred," Baer wrote.
Chief Justice Ralph Cappy and justices Ronald Castille, Thomas Saylor and Michael Eakin all joined in the opinion.