Is Suicide Covered under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act?

As a Washington longshoreman or harbor worker, you may have heard of the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA) and understand that you can potentially recover benefits under the Act. Benefits include damages for injury or illness, but they also include benefits for the family members of longshoremen in the event of a fatal accident. The federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from federal Washington district courts, has previously assessed whether a longshoreman's attempted suicide is covered under the LHWCA.

In Kealoha v. Office of Workers Comp. Programs, the Court reviewed an appeal by the injured longshoreman from the Administrative Law Judge's determination that the injuries from a suicide attempt were not compensable under the LHWCA because it was pre-planned. The Benefits Review Board had overturned the initial ALJ decision but remanded for further consideration and affirmed the ALJ's second denial of the longshoreman's claim. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately agreed with the injured longshoreman and held that a pre-planned suicide does not necessarily prevent compensation under the LHWCA. The Court ruled that the question left for inquiry is whether the work-related injury led to the attempted suicide. If there is a direct and unbroken chain of causation between the work-related injury and the suicide attempt, recovery may be possible.

The longshoreman pursuing the claim had previously fallen and sustained injuries as a result of the fall. Two years after the accident, the longshoreman shot himself in the head in an attempt to kill himself and sustained severe head injuries. The expert witness diagnosed the longshoreman with major depressive disorder and attributed it to multiple traumas, chronic pain, PTSD, and cognitive stress disorder. The doctor reasoned that the longshoreman's mental health worsened as a result of the fall and caused him to become more depressed, angry, and anxious.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals looked to persuasive authority from other circuit court decisions that concluded suicide does not, in itself, preclude compensation for injuries that are purposefully or willfully self-inflicted. Both the longshoreman and his employer agreed that suicides are covered under the LHWCA but diverged on the test that should be applied to determine whether one falls under the coverage of the LHWCA. Two tests have been used by other circuits, the "irresistible impulse test" and the "chain of causation test". The latter looks at whether the initial injury and its consequences directly led to a disturbance in the worker's normal judgment. If so, the suicide is the product of the work-related injury, and not a "willful" act. The irresistible impulse test requires the worker to have committed suicide due to an uncontrollable impulse or delirium or frenzy. However, the irresistible impulse test was either abandoned by circuits or replaced by the chain of causation test, which guided the Eleventh Circuit in its adoption of the chain of causation test.

The Washington Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act attorneys, Gordon Webb and John Merriam, have litigated and negotiated several claims under the LHWCA and know how to obtain and maximize recovery for your injuries. For a free, confidential consultation, call our office today at 877.800.1007.

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