Cosmo BISAZZA’S CASE
SJC-10183. November 20, 2008.
The Massachusetts Appeals Court has confirmed a ruling by the Industrial Accident Board that a Boston corrections officer suffered emotional injuries related to his employment, and therefore was entitled to benefits, when inmates threatened to disseminate false stories about his harassment of prisoners, and those stories were later published in the Boston Herald.
Cosmo Bisazza was a corrections officer who in 2003 worked in a special housing unit at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Concord, Massachusetts. The unit provides separate housing for gang members, pedophiles, murderers, and sex offenders to protect them from attacks by the general prison population. Bisazza did Cosmo BISAZZA’S CASEnot suffer job-related stress or anxiety prior to 2003, and had no prior history of psychiatric or emotional difficulties.
In 2003 convicted child molester and former priest John Geoghan was being housed in the special unit. While working, Bisazza discovered feces in Geoghan’s cell, which Geoghan accused him of placing there. An investigation exonerated Bisazza, but Geoghan made other unfounded accusations against him. Geoghan was transferred to a maximum security facility and was subsequently murdered there by another prisoner. Several newspaper articles were published in the next few days, describing the incident and mentioned that prior to Geoghan’s murder, unnamed correction officers had “tortured” him and had thrown feces at him.
After the murder, inmates in the special unit began to taunt and intimidate Bisazza. They threatened to tell a newspaper that it was Bisazza who had tortured and harassed Geoghan. Bisazza began to feel anxiety, stress and started missing work. Beginning in September, 2003, the Boston Herald published a series of articles, repeating the inmates’ claims that Bisazza had harassed and beaten Geoghan, and that he had placed feces in Geoghan’s cell. The department transferred Bisazza to a new position, but his anxiety continued and ultimately he stopped working as a correction officer, took treatment with a psychiatrist and filed a claim with the DIA for benefits. Another psychiatrist examined Bisazza, whose report was adopted by the administrative judge. He found that Bisazza’s disability was the direct result of trauma he suffered at work and that the false allegations to the press composed part of the work trauma, creating a direct, causal connection between the inmates’ harassment of Bisazza and his symptoms.
The Court analyzed G.L. c. 152, citing the general rule that an employee must be compensated if the employee receives a personal injury arising out of and in the course of his employment. However, the term “personal injury,” is defined the statute to include an emotional or mental injury only if the predominant contributing cause of the disability is an event or series of events occurring within any employment. The issue was whether the phrase “occurring within” employment is a limitation to the general “arising out of and in the course of employment” standard. After a detailed review of the legislative history, the Court found that it did not.
Analyzing the causal connection between the Bisazza’s injuries and his work, the Court adopted the Accident Board and the psychiatrist’s conclusions that the employee’s emotional injury clearly originated with the inmates’ taunts and threats at work even though the newspaper articles were the predominant cause of the injury. Because the inmates’ threats included the promise to provide false, damaging stories to the press, the board was justified in deciding that there was a continuous connection between the newspaper articles and Bisazza’s employment.
It is evident that the injury in this case was the result of events outside of the workplace. Bisazzo neither read, nor reacted to the newspaper accounts while in the course of his employment. However, it appears that the Court, sympathetic to Bisazzo’s circumstances, has effectively broadened the definition of workplace injury to allow benefits because a psychiatrist convincingly made a direct connection between this employee’s injury and the “work related” circumstances giving rise to the inmates’ damaging conduct. _______________________________________________________________________________