Fifth Circuit affirms benefit denial in suicide case under Defense Base Act

Posted on September 3rd, 2010

The Defense Base Act is an extension of the Longshore & Harbor Workers' Compensation Act that applies to private contractors working on foreign defense projects.

Timothy A. Eysselinck committed suicide while home on a leave of absence from his civilian job in de-mining operations in Iraq. His widow sought benefits under the Defense Base Act and argued that his suicide was caused by post-traumatic stress disorder. The Act, however, does not permit recovery for harm caused by the "...willful intention of the employee to injure or kill himself or another." That sounds simple enough. However, the Act provides a presumption that the death or injury is not willful. And, many appellate decisions have liberally interpreted that provision.

In this case, the administrative law judge found that Eysselinck's death was not the result of an irresistable impulse caused by PTSD. Assuming the presumption is rebutted by the employer as was done here, the claimant must produce expert opinion that the decedent suffered from a work-related mental disease or impairment that created the impulse leading to the suicide. The trial judge found Eysselinck did not work in life-threatening situations. The judge relied on the expert who said there was insufficient evidence of PTSD and his suicide was caused by non-work stressors.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the denial of benefits in an unpublished opinion. Eysselink v. Director, OWCP, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 17227 (5th Cir. August 16, 2010). This case highlights the importance of presenting competent medical evidence at the trial level. If fact findings by the trial judge are based on substantial evidence, they cannot be changed by any appellate court.

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