A Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled that the widow of an injured worker was entitled to benefits under the workers’ compensation laws following her husband’s suicide due to depression caused by an injury to his right, dominant hand on his job as a drywall taper with New England Finish Systems of Salem, New Hampshire. The employee was unable to do routine tasks around his home, pursue sports or hobbies, or have any hope of being able to work again. He had limited education and believed he needed full use of both hands to return to drywall work.
The court affirmed the finding of the administrative law judge (ALJ) to order payment of benefits because the employee’s suicide resulted from his injury-related depression, and there was a direct, unbroken causal relationship between the injury and the employee’s despair and his tragic taking of his own life.
The Appeals Court also agreed with the ALJ that Dr. Martin Kelly, the plaintiff’s medical expert, presented compelling testimony that the employee’s suicide did not result from psychological problems that he had suffered before the accident, as had been claimed by the insurer, Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, to justify discontinuing his benefits on that basis, leaving the employee’s wife and three children with no financial resources less than a year before he killed himself.
Dr. Kelly interviewed the employee’s widow, whom the court also found to be a believable witness, regarding the increasing depression that led to her husband’s demise. She testified that before his injury they had been happy together, had gotten along well, and her husband was very handy, took care of things around the house, and was a good family man. They had some difficulties but had overcome them and were content before the injury. After the accident she saw an immediate change in her husband. He was in great pain in his hand, wrist, and arm and could not sleep well. He was stressed, to the extent that he accused her of having an affair. He was worried about finances. He felt he had lost his family when he lost his job. She attributed all of this to the work injury.
The employee himself had also testified in a prior proceeding that his depression from his injury was due to his physical and psychological pain, which left him feeling helpless, useless, and not like a man because he could not provide for his family. The employee, who had dropped out of the tenth grade and previously been happy with his work and his life, had drawn a picture of his life post-injury as being unable to enjoy what he had loved before: playing basketball, going hunting and fishing, going sledding with his children, raking leaves, repairing the family car, and doing other chores around his home. He was no longer the sole provider and could not afford to give his children small luxuries they had enjoyed when he was working, like field trips or Girl Scouts.
Dr. Kelly, after reviewing the testimony of the widow and of her husband before his death, and the other records of the claim, concluded that:
- For the year after his injury, the employee was depressed due to pain and limitations from the injury to his right hand;
- When the insurer canceled his benefits, the cancellation led to financial distress for his family and the employee’s downward emotional spiral;
- He became depressed, argumentative, unhappy, and isolated;
- As financial pressure increased, so did the employee’s depressive symptoms;
- Domestic violence problems in the year before his death related to his work injury and the resulting pain, feelings of helplessness and uselessness, of not bringing in money, and not feeling like a man;
- The cause of these symptoms was the work injury, not marital problems;
- The employee’s injury to his right hand led not only to significant limited use and chronic pain but also to Major Depression, a psychiatric disorder;
- Treatment for these symptoms was recommended, but no insurance or other benefits were made available to him;
- Finally, he took his own life by hanging himself in his home.
The Appeals Court concluded that Dr. Kelly’s findings were supported by the evidence and affirmed the ruling of the ALJ awarding benefits to the employee’s widow and dependent children. The Appeals Court also ordered the insurer to pay the widow’s attorneys’ fees and costs of $12,324.57.
If you or your family member are hurt at work, you may both be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. An experienced Massachusetts workers’ compensation attorney can evaluate whether you have a sound claim and fight to make sure that your employer and its insurer follow the rules or give you guidance if there is no insurance available. Contact us by calling 800-367-0871 or using our online contact form.
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