Mississippi Supreme Court Denies Former Police Officer Benefits, Finding That PTSD Is Not a Physical Injury

Above: The Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi. (PERS)

On December 10, 2020, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the denial of duty-related benefits for former police officer Brian Carver, determining that the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) he suffered as a result of a 2004 shooting was not a “physical injury” as required to obtain duty-related benefits.

In 2004, Carver shot and killed a suspect while on duty as a police officer in Jackson, Mississippi. He was cleared to return to work after two visits with a psychologist, but upon returning to work, he experienced symptoms of PTSD and anxiety, including an “inability not to overreact during routine policing situations.” He began seeing a counselor in 2011, who opined that Carver was suffering from PTSD. The counselor informed the police department of Carver’s condition with his permission after an incident in 2011 when Carver admitted that “he might use his weapon inappropriately.” Carver was terminated.

Carver had applied for disability benefits before his termination. The Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi (PERS) granted his non-duty-related benefits but denied his duty-related benefits. The duty-related benefits were denied because PERS found that Carver’s PTSD was not “the direct result of a physical injury from an accident or traumatic event occurring in the line of performance of duty.”

Carver appealed, and at a PERS hearing, a doctor testified that Carver’s PTSD “is also a ‘physical illness’ as there are physiological symptoms that result from the psychological condition.” The Disability Appeals Committee disagreed, stating that Carver “did not suffer a bruise or broken bone, and the bullet did not ricochet and strike him in the head. He may argue that the injury was the chemical change in his brain which the doctor can see with an MRA, but the shooting itself did not cause these changes. Mr. Carver’s emotional and psychological response to the incident did.” The PERS Board, circuit court, and appellate court all affirmed this decision.

Carver petitioned for a writ of certiorari, asserting that the appellate court erred by finding that PTSD is not a physical injury, and the Supreme Court of Mississippi granted his petition. However, upon review, the Supreme Court of Mississippi found that “[w]hile it is true that [PTSD] can cause physiological changes to the brain and may manifest physiological symptoms, the accident or traumatic event that caused the disorder did not also cause a physical injury.” Accordingly, the court affirmed the appellate court’s order denying Carver duty-related disability benefits.

Four judges on the Supreme Court of Mississippi dissented. In a separate opinion, they wrote that PTSD is a physical injury “because it physically changes the brain and causes physical manifestations of behavior.” They cited the doctor’s testimony at the PERS hearing, saying, “it is clear that PTSD is more than mental distress or an emotional response and instead is both a mental illness and a physical illness.” They also disagreed with the majority’s opinion that a mental illness does not qualify as “[b]odily harm or hurt[,]” stating that “[t]he brain is an integral part of the human body and PTSD changes its physical makeup and the way it functions. PTSD’s effect on Carver’s brain and behavior left him physically and mentally incapacitated and unable to perform his duties as a police officer.” The dissenting opinion thus concluded that Carver should be found entitled to duty-related disability benefits.

Citation: Carver v. Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi, 306 So.3d 694 (2020)

Keywords: Mississippi, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), disability

This post is the 85th post as part of an ongoing Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) series tracking the latest developments in law and neuroscience cases. To see previous posts about recent cases, see the full case archive on the CLBB website. To see updates on legal scholarship, see the Neurolaw News, hosted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. This project is made possible through support of the Dana Foundation.

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