Which case won?

casea
The case for the employer
  • Since there is insufficient evidence of a connection between the man’s knee injuries and his suicide some 18 months later, we are not liable to pay a death benefit. There is no mention of depression in any of the man’s medical certificates following his knee injuries. Further, as the medical evidence shows, the man’s knee injuries were actually starting to improve before his death.
  • On the other hand, there is clearly sufficient evidence that the man had other problems in his life, any one of which could have caused major depression and ultimately death by suicide. The man was having marital problems at the time of his death. He and his wife were arguing frequently, including on the day of his death. He had also recently been diagnosed as suffering from emphysema, a fatal health condition.
  • There is also a well-documented history of mental health problems that predate the man’s work injury. In 2004 he attempted suicide by firearm, after suffering a major life-threatening injury in a former job. Following that suicide attempt he spent eight weeks in a mental health facility, where he was treated by a psychiatrist. At the time of his work injury in 2011 he was still taking medication for that condition.
  • In addition to there being no nexus between the man’s injuries and his death by suicide, the Workers Compensation Act precludes recovery of a death benefit where the death resulted from an intentional self-inflicted injury. As our medical expert has stated, the suicide notes left by the man confirm that his death was intentional and a result of a considered act of self-inflicted injury. There was no psychiatric evidence that his volition was overthrown.
  • Since there was no connection between the work related injury and the man’s suicide, and because the claim for death benefits is precluded by the man’s intentional suicidal act, the commission must reject the widow’s claim.
caseb
The case for the widow
  • There is a clear connection between my husband’s knee injuries and his suicide.
  • Prior to his work injury, we had a happy marriage, travelling together in our caravan and visiting our children and grandchildren. Following his knee injuries, his mental health deteriorated significantly because he was frustrated by his situation, in constant pain and unable to perform his old duties at work. His inability to participate in previously enjoyed activities, or to return to the work he loved, caused him to suffer severe mood swings and a change in personality. This caused an increased tension in our marriage, rather than, as the employer suggests, our marital tensions being the cause of my husband’s mental health problems.
  • My daughter had a discussion with her father shortly prior to his death. He disclosed to her that he hated being in pain all the time, felt heartbroken that he could not be his “old self” and believed his life was over since his work accident.
  • It’s true that my husband was diagnosed with depression some years prior to his death. However, at the time of his work injury, his depression was well controlled by medication. This has been confirmed by my medical expert before the commission.
  • This medical expert has also expressed the view that my husband’s suicide was not an intentional act, since his thought processes were distorted by his severe depressed mood.
  • Since my husband’s suicide was the result of his knee injuries and his suicide cannot be said to be an intentional self-inflicted act, the employer’s insurer is liable to pay out the death benefit.

So, which case won?

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Expert commentary on the court's decision

Di BranchLawyer
“A worker’s death by suicide does not necessarily prevent recovery of death benefits under the Workers Compensation Act. Ultimately it depends on the facts of each case.”
Personal Injury Commission rules in favour of widow

In Dadd v Toll Dnata Airport Services Pty Limited [2021] NSWPIC 54, the NSW Personal Injury Commission ruled in favour of the widow, Ms Jennifer Dadd.  

The commission concluded that the death of her husband, Mr Stephen Dadd, was the result of a psychological condition arising as a consequence of his work-related knee injuries.  

The commission ordered the employer, Toll Dnata Airport Services Pty Limited (“Toll”) to pay Ms Dadd the entire death benefit of $489,750, plus $9,000 for reimbursement of funeral expenses.

Unbroken chain of causation between injury and death

The commission confirmed that the test of causation in a claim for death benefits under the NSW Workers Compensation Act 1987 is the same as in a claim for weekly compensation: if the death “results from an injury”, compensation is payable.  

Whether the death results from an injury is a question of fact.  

The commission found that the evidence supported the conclusion that there was an unbroken chain of causation between the injury to Mr Dadd’s knees and the aggravation of his underlying psychological condition which led to his death.  

Although there may have been some improvement in Mr Dadd’s condition in early 2013, the commission found that his knee injuries had by no means resolved. The medical evidence indicated his rehabilitation was long and complicated, and that although he was trying his best to return to his pre-injury duties, he was still struggling to do so. 

In coming to this conclusion, the commission preferred the evidence of Ms Dadd’s medical expert. Of Toll’s medical expert, the commission said his “reports are unhelpful”, and that he had been selective in referring to improvements to Mr Dadd’s knees while omitting to refer to the many setbacks Mr Dadd had suffered.  

Suicide not an intentional self-inflicted act

Section 14(3) of the Workers Compensation Act states that compensation is not payable in respect of any injury to, or death of, a worker caused by an intentional self-inflicted injury. 

The commission referred to relevant case law, including a case in which it was said that “Although [section 14(3)] refers to intentional self-inflicted injury, the deliberate act of suicide may be the product of a will so overborne or influenced by the worker’s circumstances that it should not be regarded as an intentional act.” 

The commission preferred the evidence of Ms Dadd’s medical expert, who said that Mr Dadd’s severe depressive symptoms had distorted his judgement and perception. Therefore, Mr Dadd’s suicide was not an intentional act.  

Recovery of death benefits after suicide turns on facts

A worker’s death by suicide does not necessarily prevent the recovery of death benefits under the Workers Compensation Act. Ultimately it depends on the facts of each case. 

The worker’s dependants will generally succeed if it can be proven there is a link between the original work injury and the worker’s ultimate death, and that the worker’s free will was so overcome by their deteriorating mental health that their decision to take their own life was an involuntary act, rather than an intentional self-inflicted act. 

NOTICE: This article is accurate as at the time of publication and does not constitute legal advice. Please see our legal notices page for more information. Information related to coronavirus can be outdated very quickly.
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