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In the Matter of the Worker's Compensation Claim of v. State of Wyoming

December 10, 2010

IN THE MATTER OF THE WORKER'S COMPENSATION CLAIM OF: ABE S. WHEELER, APPELLANT (PETITIONER),
v.
STATE OF WYOMING, EX REL., WYOMING WORKERS' SAFETY AND COMPENSATION DIVISION, APPELLEE (RESPONDENT).



Appeal from the District Court of Uinta County The Honorable Dennis L. Sanderson, Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kite, Chief Justice.

S-10-0041

Before KITE, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, VOIGT*, and BURKE, JJ.

*Chief Justice at time of expedited conference.

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in Pacific Reporter Third. Readers are requested to notify the Clerk of the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Building, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82002, of typographical or other formal errors so correction may be made before final publication in the permanent volume.

[¶1] Mr. Wheeler developed post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depressive disorder (MDD) after two of his fellow volunteer firefighters died in an explosion. He appeals from the district court's order affirming the Office of Administrative Hearing's (OAH) denial of worker's compensation benefits for treatment of his PTSD and MDD. Concluding that the OAH properly applied the statutory language which excludes benefits for a mental injury unless it is caused by a compensable physical injury, we affirm.

ISSUES

[¶2] Mr. Wheeler presents the following issues on appeal:

Issue I

The overwhelming weight of the evidence is post traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder are caused by physical changes in the human organism and meet the definition of injury in Wyo. Stat. § 27-14-102(a)(xi).

Issue II

The hearing examiner's decision was arbitrary and capricious and otherwise not in accordance with the law.

Issue III

Wyo. Stat. § 27-14-102[(a)](xi)(J) is unconstitutional as it is vague, undefined and inapplicable to the claimant's condition and fails to apply the constitutional provision of Article 10 Section 4 of the Wyoming Constitution.

The State ex. rel. Wyoming Workers' Compensation and Safety Division (the Division) phrases the issues differently:

I. Was the Hearing Examiner's decision denying benefits because Wheeler's mental injuries were not caused by a compensable physical injury supported by substantial evidence?

II. Was the Hearing Examiner's decision denying benefits arbitrary, capricious, or otherwise not in accordance with Wyoming law?

III. Can Wheeler's argument that Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 27-14-102(a)(xi)(J) is unconstitutional be properly raised in an administrative proceeding?

FACTS

[¶3] The tragic facts of this case are not in dispute. Mr. Wheeler had been a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician (EMT) for several years when he responded to a fire call on April 18, 2005. The fire was located at an apartment complex in Evanston where he and his family lived.

[ΒΆ4] Mr. Wheeler arrived at the complex and donned his fire fighting gear. In the meantime, two other firefighters entered the burning building because they had received reports there were children trapped inside. While the firemen were inside the building, there was a large explosion. Mr. Wheeler attempted to enter the building through the front door, but could not because of the fire. He also tried a side window, but it also was blocked by fire. Mr. Wheeler obtained a hose and finally entered the building from the back. He initially proceeded down a hallway, but then froze in fear until his lieutenant pushed him forward. As Mr. Wheeler climbed some stairs, his breathing apparatus snagged on the stairway railing. He worked to free the equipment and then saw one of the firefighters who had been in the building ...


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