SC seeks to expand benefits for police officers using deadly force

Law enforcement officers who suffer post-traumatic stress or other forms of mental illness because of using deadly force in the line of duty would have an easier time claiming comp benefits under a bill passed in January by the South Carolina House of Representatives.

Under current law, mental injuries suffered in the course of employment unaccompanied by physical injury are not covered unless the claimant establishes the employment conditions causing mental problems were "extraordinary and unusual in comparison to the normal conditions of the particular employment." The recently passed House bill exempts law enforcement personnel from this subsection if the officer's mental illness is due to using deadly force.

The legislation is being pushed by State Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York. In remarks quoted by The State newspaper, he exhorted his colleagues to do something useful for law enforcement. "Quit giving them awards and quit waving at them in the (legislature's balcony), and do some small thing to help them," he said.

Although the bill passed the House by a vote of 80-32 it faces an uncertain future in the Senate. Critics fear exempting law enforcement could open the door for other first responders. There is concern also seemingly benign terms in the proposed bill, such as "direct involvement in" or "subjection to" or "deadly force," are open to varying interpretations.

Would fatalities ensuing from police pursuits fall under the definition of deadly force? If several officers respond to an incident that involves use of deadly force, were all of them subjected to deadly force?

The push to expand comp benefits for law enforcement is a direct result of the Bentley case, in which Brandon Bentley, a deputy sheriff with Spartanburg County, claimed he developed post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression after he shot and killed a suspect who attempted to assault him. Based on his psychological symptoms, his psychiatrist and psychologist determined he was unable to work and Bentley filed for workers' compensation.

The Single Commissioner hearing his case denied comp benefits on grounds the incident that traumatized Bentley was not unusual or extraordinary for a deputy sheriff. Bentley appealed to the commission's appellate panel, which agreed with the original decision. He then filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court upheld the commission's decision, noting the use of deadly force is within the normal scope and duties of a deputy sheriff. But the court took the unusual step of calling on legislators to update South Carolina's standards governing claims for mental-mental injuries.

The court said science has progressed to the point where it is easy for medical professionals to detect fraudulent claims, and hence there is little justification for the historical bias against mental-mental recoveries.



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Fewer workers test positive for drugs

The number of workers testing positive for cocaine and marijuana at work has dropped sharply since 1988, but the abuse of prescription drugs is a growing worry for employers, according to medical-testing company Quest Diagnostics Inc.

Quest examined results of more than 125 million urine drug tests performed by its labs across the country for government and private employers between 1988 and 2012. The company's testing services identify approximately 20 commonly abused drugs, including marijuana, opiates and cocaine.

The analysis examined the annual positivity rate for employees in positions subject to certain federal safety regulations, such as truck drivers, train operators, airline and nuclear power plant workers, and those working for private companies.

Key findings from the analysis:

  • • The positivity rate for the combined U.S. workforce declined 74%, from 13.6% in 1988 to 3.5% in 2012.
  • • The positivity rate for the federally-mandated safety sensitive workforce declined by 38%, from 2.6% in 1992 to 1.6% in 2012.
  • • The positivity rate for the U.S. general workforce declined by 60%, from 10.3% in 1992 to 4.1% in 2012.

But more workers are testing positive for prescription drugs. Specifically:

  • • Positivity rates for amphetamines, including amphetamine and methamphetamine, has nearly tripled (196% higher) in the combined U.S. workforce and, in 2012, were at the highest level since 1997. The positivity rate for amphetamine itself, including prescription medications such as AdderallŽ, has more than doubled in the last 10 years.
  • • Positivity rates for prescription opiates, which include the drugs hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxycodone and oxymorphone, have also increased steadily over the last decade - more than doubling for hydrocodone and hydromorphone and up 71% for oxycodone - reflective of national prescribing trends.

The Wall Street Journal noted independent studies suggest that 65% to 80% of positive tests for amphetamine and opiate use ultimately are disregarded because the user has a valid prescription. But officials say the growing problem of painkiller addiction means employers need to be more alert to the possibility these drugs are being abused.

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