The NC Workers’ Compensation Act has long prevented payment of compensation for suicide in NC workers’ comp cases. N.C. Gen. Stat. 97-12. But what about when the the injury itself contributes to the suicide? In other words, when an injured worker kills him or herself because of the effects of an a workers’ comp injury, is that covered under workers’ comp in NC?
The North Carolina courts first addressed the issue in Painter v. Mead Corp., 258 N.C. 741 (1963), which involved an employee who received an admittedly compensable head injury and suffered profound personality changes and significant cognitive impairment. Mr. Painter ultimately hanged himself in his barn. The Court considered English law, under which benefits were awarded when the suicide was part of a “chain of causation” beginning with the accident, as well as the stricter then majority rule in the United States, which limited recovery to those rare cases when the decedent was bereft of the ability to choose his own course. Id. at 746-748. Ultimately, the Court upheld an award of death benefits, holding the evidence “sufficient to support a finding that by reason of insanity the suicide was the result of an uncontrollable impulse, or in a delirium of frenzy without conscious volition to cause death.” Id. at 749. The Court in Painter declined to set a clear rule for the compensability of such cases, noting that “we go no further now than to hold the evidence was sufficient to meet the reasonable tests of that rule which the Industrial Commission seems to have used as the standard. Any further discussion is not now required.” Id.
The Court faced the issue again in 1970, this time squarely confronting the question and adopting the chain-of causation test, which remains the law today. Petty v. Associated Transport, Inc., 276 N.C. 417 (1970). In Petty, the plaintiff was a co-driver resting in the bunk of his truck when a block of concrete fell from a bridge and hit him in the head. Mr. Petty developed blurred vision, violent ideations, and significant personality changes and ultimately shot himself in the head. Id. at 420-22. The Court noted that the strict test (which it compared to the M’Naghten test in criminal law) “is not compatible with the objective of the Workmen’s Compensation Act, which is to provide for the injured workman, or his dependents in the event of his death, at the cost of the industry which he was serving.” Id at 425-26. The Court rejected the argument that the mere “fact that a workman knew that he was inflicting upon himself a mortal wound will, in all cases, amount to a ‘willful intention’ to kill himself, within the meaning of the statute.” Id. at 427 (quoting from the Supreme Court of Florida). Instead, “an employee who becomes mentally deranged and deprived of normal judgment as the result of a compensable accident and commits suicide in consequence does not act willfully within the meaning of G.S. s 97-12.” Id. at 428.
In Thompson v. Lenoir Transport Co., the Court of Appeals made clear that the chain of causation extends beyond head injury cases, citing Petty for the proposition that the “mental derangement may be caused by the consequences of the injury, including pain and despair, as well as by the injury itself.” 48 N.C. App. 47, 51 (1980). Suicide arising from an occupational disease “is also compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act. This is so because N.C.G.S. Sec. 97-52 makes it clear that the death of an employee resulting from an occupational disease shall be treated as the ‘happening of an injury by accident.'” Harvey v. Raleigh Police Dept., 85 N.C. App. 540, 547 (1987). Injuries suffered during an unsuccessful suicide attempt are likewise compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act when the evidence is sufficient to show the “plaintiff suffered from ‘mental depression and derangement’ directly related to and caused by her compensable injury and that such condition caused her suicide attempt and resulting injuries.” Elmore v. Broughton Hosp., 76 N.C. App. 582, 587 (1985).
In some circumstances, when an injured worker commits suicide because of their workers’ comp injury, the death may be covered under workers’ comp in NC. Feel free to call or email if you have questions about suicide in NC workers’ comp.