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Ship worker's suicide attempt could qualify for Longshore Act benefits

Posted On: Apr. 10, 2013 12:00 AM CST

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.

William Kealoha worked as a ship laborer for Ewa Beach, Hawaii-based Leeward Marine Inc. and was injured in 2001 when he fell from a dry dock onto a steel floor, court records show. He suffered injuries to multiple areas of his body, including his head, chest, abdomen and knee, and sought Longshore Act workers comp benefits from Leeward's insurer, Hawaii Employers' Mutual Insurance Co. Inc.

Mr. Kealoha shot himself in the head in 2003, court records show. He later sought Longshore Act benefits for his head injuries related to the shooting, contending that the suicide attempt was caused by his prior fall and litigation over his workers comp claim. A medical expert found that Mr. Kealoha suffered from "major depressive disorder" because of chronic pain and stress related to his prior comp claim.

An administrative law judge twice denied Mr. Kealoha's claim for benefits related to the suicide attempt, ruling that the Longshore Act denies benefits for injuries cause by the "willful intention of the employee to injure or kill himself or another," records show. The judge also found that Mr. Kealoha's suicide attempt did not fall under an "irresistible impulse" exemption for suicide attempts under Longshore Act case law, since evidence showed that Mr. Kealoha planned his suicide.

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The U.S. Department of Labor Benefits Review Board upheld the judge's second benefit denial in relation to the suicide attempt, records show. Mr. Kealoha appealed, contending that the judge and the benefit board should have considered whether his attempt to kill himself was causally related to his fall, rather than whether the fall caused an "irresistible impulse" to attempt suicide.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit appeals court unanimously ruled in Mr. Kealoha's favor. The court found that Mr. Kealoha only needed to prove that there was a "direct and unbroken chain of causation between a compensable work-related injury and the suicide attempt," not whether he made an impulsive, “irresistible” decision to commit suicide.

"In this case, the ALJ erroneously applied the irresistible impulse test and concluded that because Kealoha planned his suicide, he could not have committed suicide impulsively," the ruling reads. "But under the correct chain of causation test, a suicide may be compensable even if it is planned. Kealoha need not demonstrate that he attempted to end his life in a delirium or frenzy."

The case was remanded for the benefits board or the administrative law judge to apply the chain of causation test.