Is a suicide compensable? In certain circumstances it is, according to a recent ruling by the Nevada Supreme Court in Sharon Vredenburg v. Sedgwick CMA and Flamingo Hilton-Laughlin. While Nevada state law prohibits benefits if a worker's death occurs due to a "willful intention to injure himself," this does not apply if a "sufficient chain of causation is established." Roberto Ceniceros of Business Insurance noted that, "To establish such a chain, claimants must demonstrate that the employee suffered an industrial injury that in turn caused a psychological injury severe enough to override rational judgment. Claimants must then establish that the psychological injury caused the employee to commit suicide, the court said.
Dan Vredenburg was a bartender for the Flamingo Hilton in Laughlin. He suffered back injuries in a fall down stairs while working and was compensated for his injuries. According to the ReviewJournal.com, he suffered relentless pain. He couldn't keep food down and spent his life in bed. Nealy three years after this accident, he killed himself. Under the state's "willful intention" clause, his widow was denied benefits several times until the matter reached the Supreme Court and the precedent-setting determination was made.
Other workers comp-suicide rulings: MA, WY, ND
There have been other cases involving suicide where workers comp has been awarded to surviving spouses. This past November, we covered a suicide that was deemed compensable in Massachusetts. In that case, Gilbert Dube injured his back at work. When he tried to return to work on light duty, he was terminated. He then grew depressed and commit suicide a few weeks later. The insurer made the case that his termination was an independent, intervening event that broke the chain of causation. At the hearing, the claimant's attorney introduced medical evidence that the employee's back injury caused him to become clinically depressed, and that the termination exacerbated his depression to a degree that he was acting irrationally when he commit suicide. The justices concluded that the injury and termination were inextricably connected.
In the 1992 case of State ex rel. Wyoming Workers' Compensation Div. v. Ramsey, an Appeals Court upheld benefits for a decedent's widow using the chain of causation test as the predominating principle in its decision.
Steven R. Ramsey was receiving workers compensation benefits after suffering a severe 1988 industrial accident that left him unable to resume work. In 1990, about 5 weeks after his pain medication was mostly discontinued, his pain increased, he became depressed, and he killed himself. In determining to continue benefits, the Court agreed with his widow:
"The circumstances of this case are clear. Steve Ramsey would not have committed suicide if not for his work place injuries. There were no pre-existing conditions that caused him to be susceptible or prone to suicide, there were not intervening conditions or situations that occurred between the time of his work place injury and his death, and Steve Ramsey continued to do all those things necessary to try and get well. But for the injury at the Wydak Power Plant, Steve Ramsey would not have committed suicide."In the same year, a North Dakota Appeals Court denied benefits to the widow of Richard L. Kackman in the wake of his suicide, finding no cause and effect relationship between Richard's work injuries and his suicide. In this case, two doctors presented conflicting testimony. One doctor concluded that Richard's work injuries caused chronic illness, which caused depression, which in turn caused him to take his life. The other physician stated that Richard had a prior history of interpersonal problems, delusions, and a paranoid disorder before any work injuries occurred, and those preexisting conditions were what caused Richard to commit suicide. The Court agreed and denied benefits.
These cases show the importance of addressing pain and depression in recovery plans, particularly those involving life-altering injuries. Suicides in workers comp will likely continue to be outliers, but state courts have shown sympathy to the idea that pain and depression can pierce a "willful intention" defense by the insurer. The courts seem consistent from state-to-state in requiring a chain of causation. But despite the precedent-setting nature, we note Jane Ann Morrison's observation in the Nevada ruling: "None of the lawyers I spoke to thought there would be a rash of suicides by injured workers as a result of this ruling."