In recent years, mental health problems and suicide have become increasingly common among Americans. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated this crisis. According to a CDC poll in June 2020, the pandemic has “resulted in significant negative mental illness” among US adults. Data from the survey shows that 42 percent of employees in important jobs said they were struggling with anxiety and / or depression. In particular, 11 percent of all respondents have seriously thought about suicide in the past 30 days.
Overall, studies have shown that suicides related to workplace problems are on the rise, often caused by increased stress at work and excessive workload. Under what circumstances should the family of a suicide worker be awarded employee compensation benefits? Below we discuss a recent educational case from Pennsylvania, followed by an overview of how Michigan law deals with this increasingly important issue.
A recent case from Pennsylvania
A worker injured his lower back while working. The injury was deemed indemnifiable and the employer paid him some employee compensation. The employer then offered the employee marginal employment. He tried to get the job done but couldn’t because of persistent back pain. He became depressed and developed irrational thoughts – obsessed with getting fired, losing the family home, and not being able to send his son to private school. He was also concerned that he was being followed. While he was being treated for general anxiety before the accident at work, his mental health deteriorated significantly after the accident.
About nine months after the accident at work, the worker committed suicide. His surviving spouse then applied for the death benefit for the bereaved. She prevailed in the process and the appellate body upheld the trial judge’s decision.
On appeal in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, the employer argued that benefits should be reversed because injuries from willful and self-inflicted acts cannot be compensated and suicide is clearly such an act. The court dismissed the employer’s argument and instead relied on a legal test that most other jurisdictions have adopted: the chain of causality. This test regards suicide as a indemnifiable injury if all of the following criteria are met.
- At first there was an accident at work;
- The “injury immediately resulted in the worker becoming dominated by a mental disorder so severe that it overrode normal rational judgment”.
- The disorder led to the employee’s suicide.
The court eventually found that all elements of the causal chain test were in place and subsequently confirmed the granting of survivor benefits to the deceased’s spouse.
While the current Michigan law is very similar to the Pennsylvania Polluter Test, it hasn’t always been. Hammons v. Highland Park Police Dep’t, 421 Mich 1 (1984), the legal issue was whether a widow was entitled to survivor benefits after her husband, who had committed suicide as a police officer because he was denied boarding, Committed suicide. The law of the time, known as the Delirium of Frenzy Test, granted survivor benefits if an employee committed suicide by an “uncontrollable impulse or delirium of frenzy” as a direct result of physical injury at work and without physical knowledge Consequences. In practice, courts would examine whether a worker intentionally planned to commit suicide and realized that this would lead to death. In this case, no benefits would be granted.
The Hammons Court rejected the Delirium of Frenzy test and passed a new one – the causal link test. The court described this new test very clearly: “If the work leads to a compensatory psychological injury and if the psychological injury leads to a suicide, the suicide is eligible for compensation.”
We can think of Michigan’s causal association test as having two parts:
- The work must lead to psychological damage for which compensation is payable, and
- The psychological injury leads to suicide.
To pass the first part of the exam, an applicant must demonstrate that the testator has developed a work-related intellectual disability as defined in MCL 418.301 (2) and MCL 418.401 (2) (b). These almost identical legal provisions provide that an intellectual disability is eligible if: (1) the intellectual disability of the plaintiff is due to actual work events, (2) the perception of the events by the employee is not unfounded and based on reality, and (3) the work has contributed significantly to intellectual disability. See Robertson v DaimlerChrysler Corp, 465 Mich 732 (2002). This requires a judge to compare the employment and non-employment factors that contribute to the deceased’s overall mental health. See Gardner v Van Buren Pub Sch, 445 Mich 23 (1994).
If the applicant passes the first tine of the causal relationship test, the applicant must then prove the easier second tine. This usually requires minimal effort, as there is usually an obvious connection between the intellectual disability and the subsequent suicide. See Wegener v East Lansing Pub Sch, 454 Mich 879 (1997) and Aubrecht v Co Op Servs Credit Union, 1998 ACO # 495.
Since the mid-1980s, a majority of states have abandoned tests similar to Michigan’s Delirium of Frenzy test on the grounds that benefits should not be based on a worker’s knowledge that they are committing suicide. Instead, these states have introduced causation-based testing like in Michigan and Pennsylvania.