Mass. Widow Awarded Workers Comp Death Benefits in Suicide Case

September 17, 2007

The widow of a 50-year-old mechanic who killed himself after being terminated from his job is entitled to receive death benefits under workers compensation, a Massachusetts Appeals Court in Suffolk County has ruled.

The ruling affirms a decision by the Industrial Accident Reviewing Board that was appealed by the insurer, Professional Liability Insurance Co.

An administrative judge had awarded Anne Dube death benefits for her husband Gilbert Dube’s work-related back injury and subsequent pain that led to his deteriorating mental condition, unsoundness of mind and suicide. The review board agreed that the claimant was entitled to recover because the suicide was causally connected to the unsoundness of mind resulting from his work-related physical injury.

Dube, the employee, a 50-year old machine mechanic with a history of back trouble, worked at National Fiber Technology LLC . On Nov. 7, 2001, he reinjured his back when, while on the job, he “jerked” loose a card stuck in a knitting machine. The employee attempted to return to work on a light-duty basis on Nov. 26, 2001, but was informed at that time that no light-duty work was available. The employer terminated the employee’s employment on December 4, 2001. On Dec. 18, 2001, Dube committed suicide, leaving a note.

At the hearing, the claimant introduced medical evidence, credited by the administrative judge, indicating that the employee’s back injury caused him to become clinically depressed, and that the termination exacerbated his depression to the point that the employee was acting irrationally when he committed suicide.

The plaintiff offered additional testimony, confirming the change in the employee’s behavior after the work-related injury.

Although there also was medical evidence that it was the termination that “put [the employee] over the edge” and was the “predominant” cause of the depression that led to his suicide, the administrative judge’s decision did not explicitly address the causal role played by the termination in prompting the employee to take his life. In affirming the decision, the board stated:

“Here the adopted medical evidence supported the judge’s award of death benefits, because the doctors causally related the suicide both to the work injury and to the termination. That Drs. Kelly and Chastain put more emphasis on the termination — that it was the ‘predominant’ cause that ‘substantially aggravated’ the work-related depression — does not affect this analysis. The claimant established the simple causal connection required under § 26A and rightly prevailed in her § 31 claim as a result.”

On appeal, the insurer asserted that the administrative judge and the board incorrectly applied the simple causation test in determining the relationship between the employee’s work-related injury and his suicide. The insurer argued that the medical evidence only supported a conclusion that the employee’s subsequent termination was the predominant contributing factor leading to the employee’s suicide, and that the judge was required to consider and find that the termination was an independent, intervening event that broke the chain of causation beginning with the employee’s back injury.

The insurer also unsuccessfully claimed that because the independent, intervening termination resulted in a wholly mental personal injury, heightened causation standards should be applied.

The appeals court found that a suicide qualifies for benefits if it is “simply causally connected to the unsoundness of mind resulting from the injury, without having to show any particular quantity or quality of that cause.”

“Regarding the application of the simple causation standard here, we note that the administrative law judge was presented with more than sufficient evidence to determine that there was a causal relationship between the work-related physical injury and the subsequent suicide, such as to warrant compensability…,” the court wrote.

Topics Workers' Compensation Massachusetts

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