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July 2021 Case of the Month - Pennsylvania: Suicide – An Intentional but Still Compensable Act

SEPTA v. WCAB (Hansell), 464 C.D. 2020, ___ A.3d ___ (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2021).

Facts:

Claimant filed a fatal claim petition in which she alleged that her husband’s (Decedent) suicide was caused by a work-related injury that caused mental illness, stress, depression, irrational thoughts and behaviors, and suicidal ideations. Expert testimony was presented, on behalf of the Claimant, alleging that the Decedent’s mental issues were the result of a work-related injury and led to his subsequent suicide. Additional testimony was provided by the Claimant outlining the various changes in the Decedent prior to his suicide. Expert testimony was provided by the Employer, which confirmed several of the Claimant’s claims. 

Ultimately, the WCJ granted the fatal claim petition, noting the consistency of the Claimant’s testimony and the inconsistencies in the Employer’s testimony.

Employer appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) which affirmed the WCJ finding there was sufficient evidence supporting the WCJ’s finding that the Decedent suffered a mental disturbance that was severe enough to obscure his rational judgement, satisfying the chain-of-causation test for suicides. On appeal, Employer argued:

  1. That the decedent’s suicide was intentional and is not compensable pursuant to the Workers’ Compensation Act and 
  2. That the WCJ erred in applying the physical-mental standard in lieu of the mental-mental standard.

Holding:

The Commonwealth Court affirmed the WCJ’s grant of the fatal claim petition. The Court, relying on McCoy v. Workmen’s Compensation Appeal Board (McCoy Catering Services, Inc.), 518 A.2d 883, 884-85 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1986), and Pa. Power & Light v. WCAB(Lechner), 719 A.2d 1116, 1119 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1998), set forth the chain of causation test, which provides that a suicide can be compensable if it satisfies a three-factor test: 

  1. There was initially a work-related injury; 
  2. The “injury directly caused the employee to become dominated by a disturbance of the mind of such severity as to override normal rational judgment;” and 
  3. The “disturbance resulted in the employee’s suicide.”  When the test is satisfied, “the death is considered not intentionally self-inflicted and is, therefore, compensable.” 

In this case, the Court found that the evidence supports the finding that the work injury caused the Decedent “to become dominated by a disturbance of the mind of such severity as to override normal rational judgment” which led to his suicide. Additionally, the Court found that the decline in the Decedent’s mental health was caused by the initial physical work injury and, therefore, the WCJ properly applied the physical-mental standard.

Impact on Claim Handling:

Mental injury claims are very fact-specific. When an injured worker suggests mental health struggles are related to a physical injury sustained at work, it is best to proceed with caution. 

Before voluntarily accepting such a claim, review any available pre-injury medical records to determine if there were pre-existing mental health concerns and whether there has been any actual change in the injured worker’s mental health after the injury. Once added to the description of injury, it can be very difficult to limit liability for a mental health concern.

Disclaimer: This post does not offer specific legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship. You should not reach any legal conclusions based on the information contained in this post without first seeking the advice of counsel.

About the Author

Stephanie C. D'Abarno is an Associate in the Firm's Workers' Compensation Department and represents employers, insurance companies, and third-party administrators in workers' compensation proceedings throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. She has represented an array of clients including hospital systems, retail corporations, moving and self-storage companies, school districts, national carriers, and staffing agencies. She has successfully defended clients before Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Judges, the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, and Commonwealth Court. 

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