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Worker's suicide fails chain of causation test

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A widow's request for workers' compensation benefits of her deceased husband can't be granted because his death at work was caused by a knowingly self-inflicted injury, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today. The woman failed to satisfy the chain of causation test in trying to prove an initial work-related event led to her husband's death.

In Boyd Vandenberg, deceased v. Snedegar Construction, Inc., No. 93A02-0904-EX-312, Jane Vandenberg appealed the order of the Full Worker's Compensation Board affirming the single hearing officer's decision to deny her claim for Boyd Vandenberg's worker's compensation benefits.

Boyd had been at a company party in December, had a few alcoholic drinks, and then got behind the wheel of a company car. He hit another company vehicle, got out, and shot himself in the head in front of Snedegar Construction President Gary Snedegar. Boyd had previously contemplated suicide, suffered from depression, and was a perfectionist.

The single hearing member ruled the evidence showed Boyd knowingly inflicted his injury and his suicide doesn't fall under the narrow exception created by the Court of Appeals to the general bar of compensation when death is caused by a self-inflicted injury.

On review, the appellate court noted Indiana courts have had few opportunities to address whether workers' compensation benefits are barred when the employee commits suicide. It found Indiana State Police v. Wiessing, 836 N.E.2d 1038, to be instructive. Wiessing was a police officer who accidentally killed a motorist during a routine traffic stop. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result and killed himself six years later. The full board granted his descendants an application for an adjustment of claim.

In the instant case, the Court of Appeals used the chain of causation test described in Wiessing to determine that the evidence doesn't show Boyd's accident at the company party led to his suicide. The test requires an initially work-related injury defined by the Worker's Compensation Act; that injury directly caused the employee to become dominated by a disturbance of the mind with such severity as to override normal rational judgment; and that disturbance results in the employee's suicide.

Jane argued that Boyd suffered a mental injury of severe, acute depression as a result the company accident and that the company provided no evidence to explain Boyd's change in demeanor immediately following the wreck other than the accident itself.

"However, a change in demeanor is not equivalent to a mental injury," wrote Judge Terry Crone. "We cannot equate post-traumatic stress disorder with Boyd's distress, albeit extreme, following the truck accident. Also, we observe that although the evidence shows that Boyd suffered from depression in the past and may have been suffering from depression at the time of the truck accident and had obsessive-compulsive tendencies, there is no indication that his depression or obsessive-compulsive tendencies were caused by accident arising out of and in the course of employment."

Without an initial work-related injury, the chain of causation test isn't satisfied. The evidence and the reasonable inferences drawn from them support the board's decision that the company carried its burden to prove Boyd's death was caused by his knowingly self-inflicted injury, wrote the judge.

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