Last week, the Massachusetts Appeals Court issued an opinion in Chaput’s Case, in which it affirmed an administrative judge’s finding that the suicide of an employee who had suffered a work-related injury was causally connected to that injury, and thus the employee’s dependants were entitled to workers’ compensation dependency benefits.
In the case, the employee had worked as a drywall taper. According to testimony from the employee and his wife, prior to his injury, the employee lived a happy life with his wife and children. He enjoyed handy work around the house, repairing cars, fishing, hunting, yard work, and playing sports and other activities with his children.
However, in 2008, the employee injured his dominant hand in an industrial accident, leaving him with constant sharp pain in his hand and wrist, and disabling him from using his hand to engage in any of the activities he had enjoyed prior to the injury. At first, he received benefits from his employer’s workers’ compensation insurer. The insurer then filed a complaint with the Department of Industrial Accidents (DIA) to modify or discontinue benefits. When the DIA initially denied the complaint, the insurer unilaterally discontinued paying the employee’s benefits while it awaited an appeal hearing. The employee and his family were critically dependant on the payment of those benefits. Thus, in addition to not being able to work, enjoy activities, or function as he used to, the employee now also faced serious financial troubles.
At the DIA hearing, the employee testified that he had become “depressed as a result of his industrial injuries and unable without any money to provide for support for himself, his wife and three minor children.” He described the many things he could no longer do, and how these incapacities contributed to his depressive state.
After the hearing but before the administrative judge issued a decision, the employee took his own life. The administrative judge held that the insurer had improperly terminated the employee’s benefits, and ordered payment of temporary total incapacity benefits, and thereafter the payment of partial incapacity benefits for the remainder of the employee’s life. Following his suicide, the employee’s wife sought dependency benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act.
Under the Workers’ Compensation Act, the dependants of a deceased injured worker who would have been entitled to benefits under the Act may still recover benefits if the employee’s death was the result of suicide, if it is shown that, “due to the [industrial] injury, the employee was of such unsoundness of mind as to make him irresponsible for his act of suicide.” To recover those benefits, the dependants need only show that the suicide was causally connected to the unsoundness of mind resulting from the employee’s injury.
After ruling that “the industrial accident caused the secondary depressive condition that was the direct cause of the Employee taking his life,” an administrative judge awarded the dependency benefits to the employee’s wife and children. The DIA board of appeals affirmed the award, and the insurer appealed to the Appeals Court.
In also affirming the award, the Appeals Court noted that the administrative judge had properly considered and credited the employee’s prior testimony before the DIA and the wife’s testimony as to her observations of her husband’s behavior and apparent emotional state. Additionally, a board-certified psychiatrist testified as to his opinion that, among other things, the insurer’s termination of benefits was a factor in the employee’s emotional collapse; that the resulting financial pressures increased his depressive symptoms; that treatment for the depression was recommended, but the employee had no insurance benefits or resources to make treatment available to him; and that the depression was a result of his industrial injury.
Based on this testimony, the Appeals Court concluded that “the administrative judge correctly found that ‘the Employee’s act of suicide was committed while suffering from and as a result of his work related depressive illness [and there was] a direct unbroken causal relationship between the industrial injuries and the Employee’s tragic taking of his own life.'” Accordingly, the court upheld the award of dependency benefits. Additionally, the Appeals Court allowed the wife’s request for attorney’s fees, as permitted under the Workers’ Compensation Act.
For additional information on dependency benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act, please click here.