In an unpublished decision, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the denial of death benefits to the widow of a Defense Base Act contractor who committed suicide while at home on a three-month leave of absence. The Claimant-Widow alleged that the Decedent’s work-related stress caused him to suffer PTSD.
Both parties submitted the reports from mental health experts, but neither of the experts had an opportunity to interview the decedent or review contemporaneous medical records. The Claimant-Widow’s expert determined retrospectively that Decedent’s PTSD conditions were caused by his work because the expert “could find no other cause.” The defense’s expert believed that Decedent’s suicide was “due to a combination of work-related stressors, including alcohol consumption.” The Administrative Law Judge concluded that the defense’s expert was more persuasive, and that Decedent’s suicide was a willful act.
The Fifth Circuit started its analysis by quoting Section 3 of the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, which provides that “[n]o compensation shall be payable if the injury was occasioned solely by the intoxication of the employee or by the willful intention of the employee to injure or kill himself.” Section 3 provides that the Claimant-Widow carried “the burden of proving the decedent’s suicide was the result of an irresistible impulse to kill himself,” and not the result of a willful act. This burden can be met by producing an expert opinion that a mental disease or impairment created the impulse leading to the suicide. The Fifth Circuit chose not to upset the factual conclusions made by the ALJ, including the ALJ’s determination that Decedent’s actions were willful. Also, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the Section 20 presumption did not apply.