Guess v. Sharp Manufacturing of America
114 S.W.3d 480 (Tenn. 2003).

Facts:

  • Mary Guess worked on the assembly line at Sharp Manufacturing.
  • On November 6, 1998, one of Guess’s co-workers lacerated his hand, which resulted in some of the co-worker’s blood getting on Guess’s hand.
  • Guess testified that as a result of getting this blood on her hands, she was “out of control,” “nervous,” “screaming for help,” “upset,” “shaking,” and “hysterical.” She explained that she believed the blood that she got on her hands to be HIV positive. Her subjective conclusion that her co-worker had AIDS was based on the following:
    • The co-worker was sick all the time; he had been isolated in the work environment; he had friends at work who had died of AIDS; he appeared very frail; he was on the mailing list of a gay rights organization; and he “looked and acted gay.”
  • Doctors later diagnosed Guess with PTSD.
  • She then filed for worker’s compensation .

History:
The trial court concluded that Guess suffered a vocational disability as a result of the psychological consequences of her injury. She was awarded permanent partial disability of 38% to her mental faculties.

Issue:
Is an employee alleging mental injuries based on perceived exposure to HIV in the work environment entitled to workers’ compensation benefits where there is no proof of actual exposure to the virus?

Holding:
No. Case reversed.

Reasoning:

  • An accidental injury “arises out of” and is in the “course and scope of employment” if it has a rational connection to the work and occurs while the employee is engaged in the duties of employment.
    • This includes injuries that are purely mental.
  • To be compensable, the mental injury must have resulted from an identifiable stressful, work-related event that produced a sudden mental stimulus such as fright, shock, or excessive unexpected anxiety.
  • Here, the court held that while PTSD can, in some circumstances, be a compensable workers’ compensation injury, Guess’ injury wasn’t one “arising out of” her employment:
    • “We find that without proof of actual exposure, the appellee cannot show that her injury arises out of her employment.”
  • Thus, her subjective belief about her co-worker having HIV wasn’t enough.

Rule: Claimant seeking workers’ compensation benefits for a mental injury due to potential exposure to HIV must demonstrate actual exposure through a medically recognized channel of transmission.