Implications Of Suicide In Workers’ Compensation Cases
It is well established in New Hampshire’s workers’ compensation law that an injured worker cannot recover workers’ compensation benefits for an injury caused by the claimant’s willful intent to injury. Specifically, RSA 281-A:2, XI excludes coverage for injuries “proximately caused by the employee’s willful intention to injure himself or injure another.” What was previously unknown, was whether this provision barred benefits following the death by suicide of the injured worker.
Until October of 2021, there were no New Hampshire cases which gave direct guidance on this issue. In Cutter v. Hutchinson Bldg. & Lumber Co., 102 N.H. 14 (1959), workers’ compensation benefits were denied for injuries suffered when an employee jumped out a second-floor window in an apparent suicide attempt. In Boody v. K. & C. Manufacturing Co., 77 N.H. 208 (1914), an employee drowned, and dicta referenced that if the employee had “jumped into the river to try to kill himself” then the death would not have been accidental within the meaning of the workers’ compensation law. However, in neither case was there any claim, assertion, or even discussion that either claimant had committed, or attempted to commit, suicide as a result of a work-related injury (mental or physical), nor for any other work-related reason.
In looking at how other jurisdictions have addressed death by suicide in workers’ compensation law, there are two primary approaches. The older, most antiquated, and harshest rule is the Sponatski Rule, which allows recovery only when there is “an insanity of such violence as to cause the victim to take his own life through an uncontrollable impulse or in a delirium of frenzy ‘without conscious volition to produce death, having knowledge of the physical consequences of the act,’ then there is a direct and unbroken causal connection between the physical injury and the death.” In re Sponatski, 108 N.E. 466, 468 (Mass. 1915). Once the predominant view, reflecting society’s limited understanding of mental health issues in the early 1900s, this rule now appears to be strictly followed only in Missouri.
The second approach, and by far the more common rule in other jurisdictions, is what is known as the chain-of-causation rule. Under this rule, where the injury and its consequences directly result in the suicide, the suicide is compensable. Applying the Longshore Act, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that: “Given the best-reasoned modern trend of case law, we hold that a suicide or injuries arising 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.” Kealoha v. Director, Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, 713 F. 3d 521, 524-525 (9th Cir. 2013). This case is instructive as, although states’ application of the chain-of-causation rule have varied, the Longshore Act was intended to provide coverage to federal workers, with the intent to provide the same remedies as if killed or injured in the course of their employment in most states. Kealoha, 713 F.3d at 525, footnote 2.
New Jersey explains the chain-of-causation rule as follows: “the chain-of-causation test is a more realistic and reasonable standard than the Sponatski rule…. an employee’s death by suicide is compensable where the original work-connected injuries result in the employee’s becoming dominated by a disturbance of mind directly caused by his or her injury and its consequences, such as extreme pain and despair, of such severity as to override normal rational judgment. A suicide committed by an employee suffering from such disturbance of mind is not to be considered ‘intentional’ … even though the act itself may be volitional.” Kahle v. Plochman, Inc., 428 A.2d 913, 917 (N.J. 1981).
It is worth noting that in almost every case where suicide was found to be compensable, there was a statute which contained the same exclusion for intentional injury as that seen in New Hampshire law. In no case was this statutory language a complete bar to recovery.
In 2021, two workers’ compensation claims involving suicides by claimants made their way to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, and finally answered the question on how New Hampshire was going to deal with the issue of a suicide by a workers’ compensation claimant. The first, Appeal of Pelmac Industries Inc. (decided October 13, 2021), involved an injured worker who suffered debilitating injuries in a work related single-car crash in June of 2018. The claimant’s injuries caused him a great deal of anxiety and depression, which resulted in the claimant death by suicide, leaving a suicide note “thanking his wife and expressing deep dissatisfaction with his present and future situation.” Id. (slip. op. at 3).
In Pelmac, the claim had been accepted by the insurance carrier and the injured worker received benefits up until his death. After the suicide, however, the insurance carrier refused to pay death benefits to the claimant’s widow on the grounds that the claim was “not causally related to the work injury and did not arise out of or in the course of employment.” Id. Following a hearing at the Department of Labor (hereinafter “DOL”) regarding the widow’s entitlement to death benefits under RSA 281-A:26, the hearing officer found that suicide was not causally related to the work injury and denied benefits under RSA 281-A:26. The case then went to the Compensation Appeals Board (hereinafter “CAB”), where it was determined that the injuries from the car crash were compensable and, with regard to the suicide, “that ‘there was an obvious cause and effect between the [June 5] work accident and injuries . . . and the suicide,’ and that the decedent’s widow was entitled to death benefits.” Pelmac (slip. op. at 4). The employer appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
At the same time, Appeal of Estate of Peter Dodier (decided October 14, 2021) was also making its way to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Dodier differed from Pelmac in that the claim was for a mental stress injury which resulted in death by suicide. On February 18, 2017, the claimant was admitted to the hospital with symptoms resembling a panic attack. Claimant told hospital personnel that he had experienced increasing stress at work. On February 23, 2017, the claimant was admitted to the hospital again, expressing worsening anxiety and suicidal thoughts and remaining hospitalized for several days. After discharge, the claimant continued to treat, attending numerous medical and therapy appointments, continuing to discuss work as a source of stress. On Sunday, March 12, 2017, the claimant died by suicide.
In Dodier, no workers’ compensation claim had been made before the claimant’s death. After claimant’s death, his wife reported a work injury and made a claim for death benefits under RSA 281-A:26. At the DOL level, the hearing officer wrote in his Decision that “the Workers’ Compensation Law codified under RSA 281-A along with the accompanying Lab Rules state as they do. This fact finder can’t offer an interpretation of the law as this is up to the New Hampshire Supreme Court” and, accordingly, concluded that the “Estate failed to satisfy their burden of proof that [the claimant’s] demise arose out of a hazard of his employment nor in the course of his employment.” On appeal, in a 2-1 Decision, the CAB also found that the Estate failed to meet its burden to prove a compensable work injury. The Estate appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
Dodier and Pelmac were argued on the same date in November of 2020, and on October 13, 2021, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued its Decision in Pelmac. The Court framed the issue as “whether and under what circumstances suicides can be deemed to result from a prior, work-related injury and deemed not to be the product of the employee’s ‘willful’ intent or conduct, as relevant to awards of death benefits.” Pelmac (slip. op. at 10). After reviewing the case law from other jurisdictions, the Court held that:
[W]e join the majority of jurisdictions that apply the chain-of-causation test and adopt the following test in New Hampshire: An employee’s death by suicide is compensable under RSA 281-A:26 if the claimant proves by a preponderance of the evidence that the suicide resulted from a disturbance of mind of such severity as to override normal, rational judgment, and that such disturbance of mind resulted from the employee’s work-related injury and its consequences.
Under such circumstances, an employee’s death by suicide is not to be deemed as resulting from an employee’s willful intent or conduct, even though the act of suicide itself may be volitional….We agree with the majority of jurisdictions that focusing on an employee’s conscious volition and knowledge of the physical consequences of the act of suicide wrongly ignores the role that severe or extreme pain, anxiety, despair, or depression may play in the deterioration of a person’s rational mental process.
Pelmac (slip. op. at 12)(citations omitted).
A claimant can prevail under the Pelmac test even if they have other stressors in their lives (as most people do!). Specifically, the court made it clear that “[a]s in other subsequent-injury situations, the prior work-related injury need not be the sole cause of the subsequent death by suicide, but the death by suicide must be the direct and natural result of the prior work-related injury – a determination now established by satisfying the chain-of-causation test.” Pelmac (slip. op. at 12-13), citing “See Appeal of Bergeron, 144 N.H. 682, 684-686 (2000).”
Dodier was decided the day after Pelmac, with the Court first reversing the finding of the CAB on the issue of the underlying mental stress claim, holding that “the evidence leads to only one reasonable conclusion: that, even assuming that Dodier suffered from a preexisting condition, the estate demonstrated legal and medical causation as to Dodier’s anxiety and depression.” Dodier (slip. op. at 7)(citations omitted). Thus, the only issue remaining was whether the claimant’s death by suicide was compensable, and issue which had not been reached by the CAB. On this issue the Court remanded, instructing that “the CAB must apply the test set forth in Pelmac to determine whether Dodier’s death by suicide was a direct and natural result of his initial compensable injury of anxiety and depression, such that the suicide is compensable under RSA 281-A:26.” In re Dodier (slip. op. at 12). The Dodier case is now back at the CAB on remand, with the sole issue being to apply the Pelmac standard to the facts of the Dodier case. The matter is being decided on briefing, which is due December 23, 2021, with hopes for a Decision in early 2022.
These two case make it clear that if the test set out in Pelmac is satisfied, then death benefits are allowed under RSA 281-A:26. Although not specifically addressed in either Pelmac or Dodier, the same legal test should apply to an attempted suicide by a workers’ compensation claimant – allowing the claimant’s resulting medical expenses to be covered and for the claimant to be entitled to collect disability benefits if unable to return to work by nature of the original injury or the resulting suicide attempt.
Anna Goulet Zimmerman is a trial attorney with The Law Office of Manning & Zimmerman, handling personal injury matters and workers’ compensation claims. She briefed and argued the Dodier appeal.
 Sponatski was reversed by the Massachusetts legislature through the enactment of G.C. c. 152 §26-A.
 There is Vermont Supreme Court precedent case applying Sponatski but there is at least one Department-level decision in 2009 that refused to apply Sponatski and questioned whether the Vermont Supreme Court would still rule the same way. Two other states, Louisiana and Texas, follow modified versions of Sponatski, which are much more expansive than the original rule.
 Although there was no physical injury that precipitated the anxiety and depression in the Dodier case, New Hampshire workers’ compensation law has long been recognized that “the mind as well as the body may be hurt as the causal outcome of a traumatic injury.” Vallee v. Spaulding Fibre Co., 89 NH 285, 287 (1938). Applying this to stress claims, the case law is clear that “[t]here is no valid reason to sustain a claim based on physical exertion and deny one based on mental or emotional stress.” New Hampshire Supply Co., Inc. v. Steinberg, 119 N.H. 223, 227(1979). Accordingly, the primary question which would have to be answered – was suicide compensable under New Hampshire workers’ compensation law – was the same as in Pelmac.