West Virginia Law Review

Document Type



We live in a highly complex, industrialized environment. Specific work-related events occurring within this context frequently impact negatively on those who are essential to the operation of our industrial system. Often the impact of events produces human misery, suffering and death. Men and women are injured, maimed and killed. Workers' compensation statutes exist to ameliorate the plight of workers and their families through the utilization of compensation in the form of cash-wage benefits and medical care. The economic burden of compensation is ultimately borne by consumers, because the cost of insurance taken out by employers is passed on in the price of the goods and services produced. Both workers' compensation statutes and the systems produced by those statutes are appropriate responses to the perceived needs of all who have an interest in a productive economy and a just social order. As in any decision-making system designed to deal with complex cases, however, there exist opportunities for disagreement concerning the legal disposition of certain cases. This article deals with one of those matters which is subject to such serious debate: When should suicide, following a trauma experienced within the job context, give rise to a compensable claim under workers' compensation statutes? Although there has been prior general commentary on the problem, this article will offer some additional and perhaps useful information to both the attorney representing the claimant and the psychiatrist called to testify as an expert witness. A working comprehension of the psychiatric aspects of suicide is necessary in order to prepare and prosecute a successful claim or to organize a defense in this area of the law. Additionally, the expert, even if carefully selected, must understand the legal framework in which his or her testimony will be interpreted. Unquestionably, a working relationship between the attorney and the psychiatrist is a necessity in terms of preparation. Many practitioners, however, may initially fail to realize that the early decisions recognizing suicide as a compensable workers' compensation claim erroneously focus upon knowledge, cognition and uncontrollable impulses. Since the articulated models utilized by these courts in the earlier cases have become entrenched in some jurisdictions and in the minds of many judicial decision-makers, the psychiatric expert will often be forced to apply modern theories of psychiatry to illegitimately unscientific modes of legal analysis. These factors become increasingly important since many courts, when confronted with the generally liberal application of workers' compensation statutes and the advent of modern scientific insights into the causes of suicide, have been forced to consider the issue of whether an employee's suicide which follows a compensable on-the-job injury should constitute a separate ground for workers' compensation benefits. The theory behind successful claims of this nature has been that an employee who has suffered a compensable injury, which in turn triggers a psychiatric disorder resulting in suicide, is entitled to both an inter vivos compensation award and a death benefit. It is clear, however, that since suicide is generally defined as an "intentional" act (without regard to whether or not suicide is psychiatrically considered volitional or nonvolitional), many jurisdictions would deny workers' compensation death benefits to employees who take their own lives. Classic concepts indicate that recovery should be granted, if at all, only when there has been a "work related harmful change in the human organism, arising out of and in the course of employment ..." Nevertheless, when a direct causal relationship can be established among a work-related injury, a psychiatric disorder, and subsequent suicide, traditional notions should be updated and expanded to permit death benefit awards. Courts, when confronted with this dilemma, have utilized four different types of analyses. These modes of analysis can properly be identified as the Sponatski test, the New York rule, the English rule and the chain of causation test. This article examines the evolution of judicial understanding of suicide as related to the workers' compensation system, endorses the liberal chain of causation test, and demonstrates that the chain of causation approach most closely corresponds with modern psychiatric theory.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.