Gila County sheriff's deputy John France was conducting a welfare check in 2017 when a manic veteran stormed at him with a 12-gauge shotgun pointed at his face. France and his partner fatally shot the gunman.
The incident left France with post-traumatic stress disorder, but Gila County denied him workers' compensation. So France appealed to the Industrial Commission of Arizona (ICA), where an administrative law judge upheld Gila County's decision.
Both Gila County and the ICA were wrong to deny France workers' compensation, according to an Arizona Court of Appeals ruling published on Tuesday.
In a phone call with Phoenix New Times, France's attorney called the ruling "huge" and potentially precedent-setting.
"I’m excited for first responders. I’m excited for Sergeant France," attorney Matt Fendon said. "The claim was denied wrongfully by Gila County and justice has been done.”
France was not immediately available for comment.
At issue was not whether PTSD is covered under workers' compensation. It is, but only when the injury arises out of some "unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary stress related to the employment."
The question that the Court of Appeals settled was whether the stress that France experienced after the shooting was unusual.
The ICA ruled that France's case fell within the normal line of duty for Gila County Sheriff's Office deputies, particularly "deciding whether to shoot or not shoot a subject in the line of duty." Any other deputy under the same circumstances would likely have faced the same stress, noted ICA administrative law judge Michelle Bodi.
The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that Bodi erred in focusing on France's job duties and training to prepare for danger, rather than the particular stress he experienced after the attack.
In the court's majority opinion, Judge Kenton Jones wrote that Bodi appeared to be focusing on the event that led to France's PTSD, a dispatch to a report of threatened violence, which he conceded "may be routine."
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But: "The stress of the event — which here included staring down the barrel of a loaded shotgun held by a screaming manic gunman, careful repositioning to avoid injury to a fellow officer, and shooting and killing another human being at point-blank range — may not be."
Fendon said it is not uncommon for agencies to deny workers' compensation to cops for chronic PTSD developed from the job over time. This ruling probably won't help them.
But in incidents like France's, which result in acute PTSD, the Court of Appeals could not be clearer.
Attorneys for Gila County and the Industrial Commission of Arizona did not respond to requests for comment, including whether they plan to appeal to the state Supreme Court.