NINTH CIRCUIT FINDS SUICIDE ATTEMPT BY LONGSHOREMAN COMPENSABLE

In 2001, Claimant William Kealoha was injured while working as a ship laborer.  Kealoha fell 25 to 50 feet off a barge onto a steel floor.  He sustained numerous injuries, including blunt trauma to the head, chest, and abdomen and sustained numerous broken bones.  In 2003, Kealoha attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head.  Kealoha subsequently sought compensation under the Longshore & Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act for his head injuries resulting from his self-inflicted gunshot wound.

 

The presiding administrative law judge initially denied benefits on the grounds that Kealoha’s suicide attempt was not the “natural and unavoidable” result of his fall and other, more significant factors led to his suicide attempt.  Alternatively, the ALJ found that Claimant’s suicide attempt precluded recovery for compensation under Section 3(c) because Claimant’s injury was caused by his willful intention to injure or kill himself.    On appeal to the Benefits Review Board, the BRB reversed the ALJ, holding that application of the “natural and unavoidable” standard was improper.  Further, the BRB indicated that the ALJ failed to address whether Kealoha’s illness was so severe that he lacked capacity to form willful intent and failed to address whether the stress caused by Kealoha’s upcoming deposition as to his underlying accident contributed to his stress.

 

The BRB instead held that the “irresistible impulse” standard was applicable.  Under this standard, an employee’s injury is compensable when the employee takes his life through an “uncontrollable impulse or in a delurk or frenzy without conscious volition to produce death.”  On remand, the ALJ found that Claimant planned his suicide and that his suicide attempt was intentional and not the result of an irresistible impulse.

 

The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that “a suicide 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 Ninth Circuit further held that a claimant need not demonstrate an irresistible impulse and noted that this standard better reflected the Longshore Act’s focus on causation and not on fault.  The matter was remanded to the BRB or the OALJ for further application under this standard.

 

Kealoha v. Director, OWCP and Leeward Marine