Until recently, the New Hampshire Supreme Court had not addressed the issue of whether or not suicide could be covered under the New Hampshire Workers’ Compensation Statute. The idea that the intentional taking of one’s life could be compensable was in direct contrast to an exclusion in the New Hampshire Workers’ Compensation Statute’s definition of injury. Moreover, the intentional taking of one’s life was barred by an additional employee fault provision in the Statute.
In general, workers’ compensation is a no-fault system. An employee’s negligence or stupidity is not a defense to a claim for compensation. However, the definition of injury in RSA 281-A:2, XI contains an exclusion that “No compensation shall be allowed to an employee for injury proximately caused by the employee’s willful intention to inure himself or injure another.” Likewise, RSA 281-A:14 (Employee Fault) provides “The employer shall not be liable for any injury to a worker which is caused or in whole or in part by intoxication or by the serious and willful misconduct of the worker.” It would be fair to assume under the Statute that if a worker intentionally took his own life, then compensation would be barred pursuant to the definition of injury and/or by the employee fault.
Recently, the New Hampshire Supreme Court addressed this issue. In Appeal of Pelmac Industries, Inc., 174 N.H. _____ (Decided October 13, 2021), the worker was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident resulting in a fractured neck, a concussion, a significant tear to his left rotator cuff, and multiple rib fractures. The worker eventually took his own life by slitting his throat. He did leave a suicide note expressing deep dissatisfaction with his present and future situation. A neuropsychologist’s opinion was that the workers’ traumatic brain injury affected “areas involved with emotional control, reasoning, and judgment.” See Id. Slip Op. at 15. However, no medical expert had opined that the worker was delusional or suffered from hallucinations, confusion, or psychoses.
The Court adopted, in Pelmac, the following three part test to determine whether a deliberate decision to kill one’s self is compensable or barred by the exclusion provision in the definition of injury and/or by employee fault:
“An employee’s death by suicide is compensable under RSA 281-A:26 (Death Benefit Section) if the claimant proves by a preponderance of the evidence that the suicide resulted from a disturbance of mind of such severity as to override normal, rational judgment, and that such disturbance of mind resulted from the employee’s work-related injury and its consequences.” Id. Slip Op. at 9.
In reaching this conclusion, the Court concluded that the exclusion provisions in the definition of injury and employee fault were inapplicable when the claimant’s Estate sustained its burden in meeting the new legal test.