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Langham: Intent to Injure

By David Langham

Friday, November 8, 2019 | 144 | 0 | min read

On Sept. 5, 2019, the New York Appellate Court decided Delacruz v. Village of Freeport. The appeal was from a decision by the Workers' Compensation Board (an administrative appellate review body similar to various other states including Georgia, Kentucky and Virginia).

Judge David Langham

Judge David Langham

The board decided that the worker in this case died as a "result of her deliberate intention to injure herself." Therefore, the "claim for workers' compensation death benefits" was denied. 

The injured worker was an on-duty police officer "found dead in her parked police car from a perforating gunshot wound to the head." The medical examiner concluded that "the cause of her death was suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot wound."

The "surviving spouse" sought "death benefits alleging that decedent was involved in a line-of-duty death." The trial judge granted benefits, concluding that the "claimant sustained a work-related injury involving death."

The board reversed and denied the claim. The New York Appellate Court affirmed the board's decision. It noted that workers' compensation benefits "may not be awarded 'when the injury has been solely occasioned ... by wil[l]ful intention of the injured employee to bring about the injury or death of himself [or herself]." 

However, when "an unwitnessed or unexplained death occurs during the course of employment," there is in New York "a presumption of compensability." Thus, a victim found with a gunshot wound, in uniform, and on duty, might be entitled to a presumption of entitlement to workers' compensation benefits. 

But, the court explained, "if it is established by substantial evidence that death occurred by suicide," then the presumption is overcome. Then, the injury results from the "willful intention."

In that situation, the court explained, workers' compensation benefits are awarded only if "the suicide results from insanity, brain derangement or a pattern of mental deterioration caused by [a] work-related injury." In other words, an employee might have a work injury that resulted in psychiatric or psychological injury. If that resulting "mental deterioration" in turn led to suicide, then the death might be compensable. 

The court described the evidence presented. This included observations of those who investigated the scene and performed the autopsy. There was video surveillance substantiating both the officer's movements and the absence of any other individuals present "at the time of the incident." And there was testimony presented that cast doubt on the possibility that the weapon involved had discharged accidentally. 

The court noted that the record did not support that the dead officer had any history of "a work-related injury that affected her mental state." Furthermore, there was no record evidence that the officer had "a history of mental illness or substance abuse," while there was evidence of some work pressures or anxieties and some holiday-related "depression and/or stress."

Essentially, the record evidence did not satisfy the New York statute requirement of demonstrated relationship between suicide and work. 

Florida has a similar exclusion of intentional injury or death in section 440.28(3): 

(3) Compensation is not payable if the injury was occasioned primarily by the intoxication of the employee; by the influence of any drugs, barbiturates or other stimulants not prescribed by a physician; or by the willful intention of the employee to injure or kill himself, herself or another.

Long ago, when Florida workers' compensation was in its teenage years, in Whitehead v. Keene Roofing Co., the Florida Supreme Court judicially created an exception to the plain language of this statutory provision. In that case, the decedent had suffered a workers' compensation injury and later died of poisoning that appeared self-inflicted.

The court held that:

"... where the injuries suffered by the deceased result in his becoming devoid of normal judgment and dominated by a disturbance of mind directly caused by his injury and its consequences, his suicide cannot be considered /willful' within the meaning and intent of the act." 

This is discussed further, and more recently, in Estate of Jenkins v. Recchi America. There, the court explained:

"Thus, in Florida, compensability turns not on 'the fact that a workman (sic) knew that he was inflicting upon himself a mortal wound,' or that he was governed by an uncontrollable impulse at the time of the suicide, but rather on the existence of 'an unbroken chain of events from the injury [to the mental disturbance] to the death.'”

Thus, though not a stated statutory exception in Florida, the analysis in Florida might be similar to that explained by the New York court. The result in Florida would not be because the Legislature enacted an exception to the statute, but because the Florida court legislated it.

The evolution of workers' compensation is intriguing.

David Langham is deputy chief judge of the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims. This column is reprinted, with his permission, from his Florida Workers' Comp Adjudication blog.

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