Decedent worked as a pest control specialist in Iraq for one and a half years. Upon returning to the United States in June 2006, he learned that his wife had committed adultery while he was away, and that his daughter developed a drug problem. A few weeks later, Decedent checked himself into a hotel room where he shot and killed himself. Claimant, Decedent’s widow, filed a claim for death benefits contending that Decedent’s suicide was related to his employment.
An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) agreed, noting that “the zone of special danger could have been a cause of [Decedent's] suicide.” The ALJ noted Decedent’s exposure to mortars, a hazardous waste spill, a colleague’s injury or death, and even the Decedent’s physical separation from his family as all falling under the zone of special danger. After the ALJ awarded benefits, the Employer and Carrier appealed to the Benefits Review Board (“BRB”) the first time. The BRB vacated and remanded for the ALJ to determine whether Employer presented substantial evidence to rebut the Section 20(a) presumption.
On remand, the ALJ awarded compensation even though he determined that Employer rebutted the Section 20(a) presumption. The ALJ then weighed the evidence as a whole and assigned more weight to Claimant’s expert psychologist. According to the ALJ, the Decedent’s suicide was the result of an irresistible impulse and not an intentional act. Employer again appealed.
After the ALJ issued his Decision, but before the BRB issued its second Decision, the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion in Kealoha v. Dir., OWCP, 713 F.3d 521 (9th Cir. 2013). The Navigable Waters post on Kealoha is available through this link. In Kealoha, the Ninth Circuit held:
[S]uicide or injuries from a suicide attempt are compensable under the Longshore Act when there is a direct and unbroken chain of causation between a compensable work-related injury and the suicide attempt. The claimant need not demonstrate that the suicide or attempt stemmed from an irresistible suicidal impulse. The chain of causation rule accords with our modern understanding of psychiatry. It also better reflects the Longshore Act’s focus on causation, rather than fault.
What is an “unbroken chain of causation?” It is “where the injury and its consequences directly result in the workman’s loss of normal judgment and domination by a disturbance of the mind, causing the suicide.”
The BRB determined that Kealoha applied to this case even though the Ninth Circuit decided Kealoha after the ALJ issued his second Decision. Ninth Circuit jurisdiction applied, and the BRB was bound to apply Ninth Circuit law. Considering such, the BRB had to vacate and remand the claim for the ALJ to determine whether there was an “unbroken chain of causation from the injury to the suicide.” The ALJ must consider the full extent of the events that occurred prior to Decedent’s death, which Employer summarized as follows:
Employer asserts that the events which occurred in June and July 2006 while decedent was not in Iraq were the cause of his death. When decedent arrived home unexpectedly in June 2006, he learned: he had been locked out of his home; his wife appeared to be committing adultery; his daughter was seeing someone 10 years older than she; and, she was taking drugs and had been expelled from school for doing so. Thus . . . while there may have been previous family strife and decedent may have been troubled by being separated from his family, the true stressor that caused him to actually commit suicide was his familial situation once he arrived home.
It is telling that the BRB chose to paraphrase Employer’s arguments. But if that wasn’t enough, it also printed an edict for the ALJ in footnote 14:
Effectively, the administrative law judge found that the behavior of claimant and her daughter was the natural and unavoidable result of decedent’s having been away from home, the fighting and breakup were the natural next result, and the suicide was the natural final result. The administrative law judge should readdress this line of reasoning under the “chain of causation” test enunciated by the Ninth Circuit.
Tip of the hat to Lara Merrigan for forwarding this opinion.