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Workers’ comp: Was death accidental overdose or suicide?

An employee suffered a neck injury and was prescribed pain killers and other medications. Was the employee’s death an accidental overdose or suicide? The answer would determine whether her survivors get death benefits. 

Kena B. worked for Northfield Retirement Communities in Nebraska and suffered an injury on the job in 2009.

Kena died in 2014 of an apparent drug overdose.

On the day she died, she was visited at home by a police detective and a social worker. Kena and her teenage daughter were living with a friend at the time. The purpose of the visit was to talk to Kena about her drug usage and living situation, and investigate a complaint about physical abuse of her daughter.

The friend Kena was living with asked the police detective to tell Kena she was no longer welcome there. The social worker also informed Kena her daughter was going to be removed from her custody.

Kena was upset and told the social worker she was going to take a Xanax. She said several times that she was “at her end.” The social worker asked if she was going to harm herself and she said no.

About an hour after the detective and social worker left the house, a 9-1-1 call was made from Kena’s residence. Emergency personnel found Kena unconscious and took her to a hospital where she later died.

The primary diagnosis at the hospital was intentional drug overdose. However, an autopsy report said her death was accidental.

Kena had prescriptions for methodone, oxycodone and Xanax. Based on the quantities of pills found where Kena was living, a doctor determined she overdosed on all three medications and that the amount of medication would have been enough to send her into respiratory arrest and cause her death.

The doctor also said it was most likely the Xanax that caused Kean’s death because of its instantaneous reaction time.

Kena’s father applied for workers’ comp death benefits on behalf of Kena’s teenage daughter. A workers’ compensation court denied the request on the grounds that the manner of death was suicide which constituted willful negligence and therefore barred any workers’ comp benefits.

Kena’s father appealed to a Nebraska court.

Presumption against suicide

In Nebraska, when the cause of a death is disputed, there is a presumption against suicide “based upon the natural characteristics of persons for love of life and fear of death.”

However, if evidence shows the death was a suicide, the presumption can be overcome.

The appeals court noted the conflicting evidence in this case, including the differences in the listed cause of death between the hospital report and autopsy.

But the court also noted:

  • On the afternoon of her death, Kena stated several times that she was “at her end”
  • That statement indicated a sense of hopelessness and emotional instability, which supports finding of suicide
  • There was a short amount of time between when Kena found out about her eviction and daughter’s removal from her custody and when she overdosed, and
  • She had a history of depression, including “suicidal ideations and attempts,” including a hospitalization less than a year before her death.

Taking all of that into consideration, the appeals court agreed with the workers’ compensation court that the evidence pointed toward suicide – the presumption against suicide had been overcome. Therefore workers’ comp benefits couldn’t be awarded.

Kena’s father also argued that, even if the overdose was intentional, Kena’s work injury contributed to her suicide and therefore was compensable.

In a previous case, the Nebraska Supreme Court established an exception that “nonvoluntary suicide” could result in workers’ comp benefits.

But for that to be the case, the court would need to find that Kena’s pain from her work injury, rather than depression, drove her to commit suicide. The appeals court said the evidence, including previous history of depression and a suicide attempt, showed that wasn’t the case.

For those reasons the appeals court upheld the workers’ comp court’s decision to deny Kena’s father and teenage daughter death benefits in this case.

(Michael B. v. Northfield Retirement Communities, Nebraska Court of Appeals, No. A-16-486, 2/7/17)

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