South Eastern Transportation Authority (SEPTA) v. WCAB (Hansell); 464 C.D. 2020; filed May 24, 2021; Judge Cohn-Jubelirer

Commonwealth Court holds that a suicide was not intentional and, therefore, the fatal claim was compensable.

In this case, the decedent sustained a work injury to his low back on June 17, 2016. The injury was acknowledged by the employer via a Notice of Compensation Payable (NCP). The decedent attempted a return to light-duty work, but was unable to continue doing so. On March 19, 2017, the decedent committed suicide and, thereafter, the claimant filed a fatal claim petition alleging that the decedent’s work injury caused mental stress which led to his suicide.

The Workers’ Compensation Judge granted the petition and, in doing so, found the testimony of the claimant’s psychiatric expert to be more credible and persuasive than the employer’s. The judge rejected the opinion of the employer’s expert, that the suicide was unrelated to the work injury and due to ongoing psychiatric problems that pre-dated the injury by many years. The judge pointed out that the employer’s expert admitted there was no indication of depression in the medical records until November of 2016, after the work injury, and that the decedent was never diagnosed with depression or reported a suicidal thought before the work injury. The Board affirmed.

On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, the employer argued that compensability of the claim was barred by § 301(a) of the Act, as the evidence established that the decedent’s suicide was intentional. Section 301(a) states that no compensation shall be paid for an injury or death that is intentionally inflicted. However, the law allows compensability in a suicide case where there was initially a work-related injury that caused the employee to be dominated by a disturbance of the mind of such severity as to override normal rational judgement and the disturbance resulted in a suicide.

Although the court acknowledged the decedent’s actions showed some planning of the suicide on his part, they rejected the employer’s contention that it was meticulously planned and executed and, thus, intentional. The court further rejected the employer’s argument that the Workers’ Compensation Jude erred in applying a physical-mental standard for a psychiatric injury instead of a mental-mental standard, which would have required a showing of an abnormal working condition. According to the court, the mental standard did not apply because the decedent’s psychological injury was not the result of a psychological stimulus.


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