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Suicide is not always covered under workers compensation, but experts say in certain cases it can be.
“Whether an employer is liable for suicide or attempted suicide depends upon a causal connection between the emotional state that resulted in those activities and the employer,” said said Robert Buch, Los Angeles-based partner and attorney at Seyfarth Shaw L.L.P. “In the case of physical injuries which require long care, cause significant pain, and maybe require multiple surgeries, an injured worker can develop something called a functional overlay, which is an emotional reaction to the long recovery process that could cause an emotional state resulting in suicide. In other instances, the question is whether the person has a pre-existing condition that he exhibits at the worksite ... where the employer plays no role but it just happens to be an active stage upon which this suicide occurs. These are medical questions that doctors have to advise us.”
A 2012 study conducted by Abay Asfaw, senior research fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Kerry Souza, epidemiologist in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations and Field Studies, that examined if injured workers were more likely than non-injured workers to be treated for depression after an occupational injury determined that within 3 months of an injury the odds of injured workers being treated for depression were 44% higher than for non-injured workers.
This month, a federal appeals court ruled in Leeward Marine Inc.; Hawai’i Employers’ Mutual Insurance Co. v. Director, Office of Workers’ Compensation Program; William B. Kealoha that William Kealoha was entitled to workers comp for injuries from a suicide attempt.
In 2001, Mr. Kealoha worked for Ewa Beach, Hawaii-based Leeward Marine Inc. During his time as an employee of the company, he fell from a barge to a dry dock and landed on a steel floor, suffering blunt trauma to the head along with many other injuries. In 2003, Mr. Kealoha shot himself in a suicide attempt that he said was a result of his fall and stress stemming from litigation over a workers comp claim related to his injuries. A psychiatrist testified that due to the related trauma, chronic pain and stress, Mr. Kealoha suffered from major depressive disorder. He sought workers comp benefits and would eventually be awarded benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, according to court documents.
Suicide is compensable when it can be tied to an uncontrollable impulse resulting from the workplace injury, experts say.
In 2008, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in Sharon Vredenburg vs. Sedgwick CMS and Flamingo Hilton-Laughlin that Sharon Vredenburg, the surviving spouse of Danny Vredenburg, who committed suicide after a fall caused disc derangement in several locations along his spine, would be awarded workers comp benefits.
“We conclude that suicides may be non-willful deaths under Nevada's workers compensation law if they are sufficiently causally connected to an industrial injury. In reaching this conclusion, we adopt the chain-of-causation test to determine whether a sufficient causal connection exists,” the court said.
While it is possible to receive workers comp benefits in cases involving suicide, experts say these cases can be challenging to prove. There needs be “causal connection between the stressor and the causation of the suicide,” said Mr. Buch.
“It’s challenging because when you think about it often you don’t know what a person’s history is,” said Dr. Teresa Bartlett, Detroit-based senior vice president, Medical Quality at Sedgwick Claims Management Inc. “You don’t know if they have a history of severe depression or mood disorders or a prior injury that may have impacted this.”
“Aggressive medical management early in a claim is the prevention to a tragedy, there is nothing better than quality care, and keeping an injured worker on a treatment regime is the most beneficial,” she said.
A New York mental health practice that evaluated and treated an injured worker in relation to a workers compensation claim cannot be held liable for that worker's suicide, a New York appellate court has ruled.