State law barring family members from collecting workers’ comp benefits if a worker’s death resulted from a “willful intention to injure himself” does not apply when a “sufficient chain of causation is established,” the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in Sharon Vredenburg v. Sedgwick CMA and Flamingo Hilton-Laughlin.
To establish such a chain, claimants must demonstrate that the employee suffered an industrial injury that in turn caused a psychological injury severe enough to override rational judgment. Claimants must then establish that the psychological injury caused the employee to commit suicide, the court said.
The decision stems from a back injury that Danny Vredenburg, a bartender, suffered from slipping on a flight of stairs, causing disc derangement in several locations along his spine, court records show. Despite surgery and the use of pain medications and anti-inflammatory agents, he continued to experience pain.
A doctor diagnosed Vredenburg as psychologically destabilized because of his chronic pain and recommended that he claim permanent disability status. When Vredenburg killed himself, a second doctor opined that Vredenburg did so because of the unrelenting pain, and his spouse then filed for death benefits.
But the insurance administrator for Vredenburg’s employer ruled that the doctor’s opinion lacked a medical rationale linking the suicide to his industrial injury and denied the claim.
A workers’ comp appeals officer agreed, and a district court denied the claimant’s petition for judicial review. But the Nevada Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case for proceedings consistent with its opinion.