Compensable Suicide in MA

September 24th, 2007 by

Gilbert Dube was a mechanic with a chronic back problem. He was working for National Fiber Technology LLC in Lawrence, MA, when he re-injured his back on November 7, 2001. He tried to return to work on a light-duty basis a couple of weeks later, but his employer informed him that there was no light duty available. (Red flag number one.) On December 4, he was terminated. (Red flag number 2.) On December 18, less than six weeks after the injury, Dube committed suicide. His widow filed for workers comp death and burial benefits. She prevailed at the industrial accident board. The carrier appealed, but three justices of the appeals court (McCarthy, Horan and Fabricant) found in her favor as well.
The insurer tried to argue that the termination – not the injury itself – was the cause of the suicide. Because bona fide personnel actions are usually not grounds for filing a claim, they sought a reversal. The justices concluded that the injury and termination were inextricably connected. And further, the statute prohibits claims that link a personnel action to a disability – – death is not a disability. The justices go all the way back to Chief Justice Rugg, writing in 1915, just four years after the workers comp law was passed in Massachusetts:

The single inquiry is whether in truth it did arise of out of and in the course of employment. If death ensues, it is immaterial whether that was the reasonable and likely consequence or not; the only question is whether in fact death “results from the injury.

Unanswered Questions
The Insider is left to puzzle over some issues that were glossed over in the ruling. First, why did National Fiber Technology not have any light duty? They make wigs and costumes, primarily those involving fake fur. (If you’re casting a Sasquatch or a gorilla in your next play, give these folks a call. Here is a link to some samples of their work.) At least some of the work – lifting and arranging fake hair! – would be very light duty indeed.
Then there is the mystery of the quick termination. Dube was injured on November 7 and terminated barely 4 weeks later, on December 4. What was the hurry? The quick trigger on termination surely raises the specter of discrimination based upon a work-related disability. Even if the employer could not accommodate Dube (they didn’t appear to try), they could have kept him on the roster, pending a more complete recovery. That would not have cost them anything and it would have provided Dube with some motivation during his recovery.
In this particular situation, everyone loses. The unfortunate Mr. Dube, first loses his job and then, confronted with the possible end of his career as a mechanic, takes his own life. His employer terminates in haste and repents at leisure. The carrier pays for the burial and provides ongoing support to the widow. In most instances, suicide is a private matter that falls outside the scope of employment. In this sad situation, suicide and employment are joined forever.
This case has important implications for MA employers. The court is saying that any suicide stemming from a work-related injury defaults to compensability under comp. The fact that a personnel action was involved is not a viable defense. The burden of proof falls to the employer and the carrier to show that the suicide was not work related. With this ruling in hand, that will be a very difficult standard to meet.