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Editorial: Payment to pepper sprayer is another black eye for workers’ comp system

Something is wrong when the police officer who pepper-sprayed UC Davis students collects more in workers’ compensation for a wounded “psyche” than his victims did in the courts.

Yet, that’s the situation. Former Lt. John Pike will receive $33,350, while the 21 students who sued over the November 2011 incident received $30,000 each.

Pike, who was fired in July 2012, says that after a video of the incident went viral and his name became public, he became the target of about 27,000 texts and emails, some of them vicious.

But what about the physical and mental anguish of the students who had a painful chemical sprayed in their faces? Didn’t Pike bring the scorn upon himself by completely overreacting to a peaceful protest? And wasn’t most of the stress after he was suspended?

The university says it had no choice in the matter once the state Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board ruled.

Under California law, psychiatric injury and job-related mental stress can be cause for compensation, including permanent disability benefits. The amount depends on the level of disability, which is determined by the medical diagnosis and what the injured worker and other witnesses say, according to the state Department of Industrial Relations, which runs workers’ compensation.

Workers’ compensation has a troubled history in California. The complicated, costly system came to symbolize what was wrong with state government. Injured workers received some of the nation’s lowest benefits and employers paid skyrocketing premiums, while lawyers, doctors and others worked the system to rake in the cash. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to fix the problems as governor in 2004 with measures to rein in doctor shopping and other abuses.

The Legislature took another crack at reform last year with a bill designed to reduce costs for businesses while increasing benefits for permanently disabled workers by limiting lawsuits and making the system more efficient.

Recent changes in the law tightened eligibility and raised the level of proof needed in psychological-stress cases. The payment to Pike, however, again sprays disrepute on California’s workers’ comp system.