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A federal appeals court ruled a man who shot himself due to anguish over injuries suffered on the job is entitled to compensation for the injuries he sustained during his suicide attempt.
William Kealoha worked as a ship laborer in 2001 for Ewa Beach, Hawaii-based Leeward Marine Inc. when he fell between 25 and 50 feet from a barge to a dry dock, landing on a steel floor. Mr. Kealoha suffered blunt trauma to his head, chest and abdomen, along with a fractured rib and shoulder blade, and knee and back pain. He filed a workers compensation claim under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act with Leeward’s insurer, Hawaii Employers’ Mutual Insurance Co. Inc., according to court records.
In 2003, Mr. Kealoha shot himself in the head, causing severe head injuries, in a suicide attempt that he said was a result of his fall and litigation over that claim. A psychiatrist who testified on his behalf during his first hearing in front of an administrative law judge said Mr. Kealoha suffered from major depressive disorder due to multiple traumas and chronic pain from the fall and stress from the litigation, which caused depression, anger and anxiety, and worsened his already poor impulse control, court records show.
Mr. Kealoha sought workers comp benefits for the injuries he sustained during his suicide attempt. An administrative law judge in Honolulu denied Mr. Kealoha’s claim for benefits, finding that his suicide attempt was not the “natural and unavoidable” result of his fall and that it was not compensable because it was the result of his own willful intention to injure or kill himself. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Benefits Review Board reversed the judge’s decision and recognized an exception to that provision, saying a worker’s suicide attempt resulting from “irresistible impulse” caused by a work-related injury is not “willful” and therefore is compensable, according to court documents.
On remand, the administrative law judge found that compensation was barred because Mr. Kealoha’s suicide attempt was intentional and not the result of “irresistible impulse” because he had planned it in advance. In 2013, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals again remanded the case, saying evidence of planning a suicide attempt does not preclude compensability, court records show.
The judge awarded benefits to Mr. Kealoha under the Longshore Act, and the Benefits Review Board affirmed the decision. Leeward Marine and its insurer appealed the decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
In an unpublished decision issued Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled that the board correctly affirmed the administrative law judge’s decision to award benefits to Mr. Kealoha and denied the motion to review, saying recovery under the Longshore Act is appropriate.
“The ALJ did not err by relying on the aggravation rule to find that Kealoha had established that the accident was a causative factor in his attempted suicide and that a direct and unbroken causal chain was shown,” the panel said in its ruling.
The case is Leeward Marine Inc.; Hawai’i Employers’ Mutual Insurance Co. v. Director, Office of Workers’ Compensation Program; William B. Kealoha.
Representatives of Leeward Marine were not immediately available to comment.
A ship worker's attempted suicide could be covered under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act if it is found to be part of a "chain of causation" in connection with a previous compensable injury, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Tuesday.