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More on comp benefits and workplace suicide

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A day after the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report showing that workplace suicides shot up 28% in 2008, an Indiana appeals court ruled on a work comp case that addressed that very issue.

The case of Boyd Vandenberg v. Snedgar Construction Inc. is interesting not only because of what it says about survivor benefits when an employee kills himself at work. But also because of what it says about guns in the workplace.

The court ruled Mr. Vandenberg's widow was not entitled to comp benefits because Mr. Vandenberg's death resulted from a self-inflicted injury and he knew what he was doing. And, as in other states, Indiana bars comp benefits for self inflicted injuries.

As I wrote yesterday in a posting about the BLS report released last week, state statutes and court decisions have generally allowed exceptions to barring benefits when injuries are self inflicted.

Indiana allows benefits when a worker commits suicide if mental disease prevented the worker from “knowingly” injuring themselves. Indiana courts, like courts in other states, have also ruled that suicides are compensable if there is a clear chain of causation to a previous work injury.

In Mr. Vandenberg's case, he attended a party in 2005 on company premises and then caused a minor wreck involving two company trucks. While extremely upset and still on company property and in the presence of the company's president, Mr. Vandenberg removed a handgun from the truck's console and committed suicide.

Evidence that weighed against providing benefits included a history of suffering from depression and obsessive-compulsive tendencies as well as whiskey consumption before the accident.

There was also the question of a gun in the company truck. Court documents state that Mr. Vandenberg, through his employer, was contracting with a company that did not allow firearms at its worksites, although Mr. Vandenberg was not on that company's property when he killed himself.

The National Rifle Assn. in the past few years has been pushing for more states to allow employees to take their guns into employer parking lots as reported in a Business Insurance story available here.

An NRA opinion piece on the parking lot issue is available here.

But the Vandenberg case provides an example of why employers and insurers have opposed the NRA on the issue. Although the suicide, tied to a gun, is not compensable, there are still the defense costs, not to mention the human tragedy.

Fortunately, the Vandenberg appeals court decision mentions that Indiana courts have had to deal with few cases addressing compensating for suicides.