‘My husband committed suicide due to a work-related injury; his employer should pay out the death benefit.’ Which case won?

30th Jun 2022

In October 2011, a man sustained injuries to his knees after bending and twisting to straighten a heavy pallet of goods. He required surgery on both knees, lived with chronic pain thereafter and was restricted in his work capabilities. His employer’s workers compensation insurer accepted liability for the knee injuries and began payment of weekly benefits and treatment expenses.

Man commits suicide and widow claims lump sum death benefit

In early 2012, the man developed major depression. On 1 March 2013, he took his own life by overdosing on his anti-depressant medication. After his death, the man’s widow sought payment of a lump sum death benefit from the employer’s workers compensation insurer. The insurer denied liability and the widow lodged a dispute with the NSW Personal Injury Commission. 

So, which case won?

Personal Injury Commission rules in favour of widow

In Dadd v Toll Dnata Airport Services Pty Limited [2021] NSWPIC 54, the NSW Personal Injury Commission ruled in favour of the widow, Ms Jennifer Dadd.  The Commission concluded that the death of her husband, Mr Stephen Dadd, was the result of a psychological condition arising as a consequence of his work-related knee injuries. The Commission ordered the employer, Toll Dnata Airport Services Pty Limited (‘Toll’) to pay Ms Dadd the entire death benefit of $489,750, plus $9,000 for reimbursement of funeral expenses.

Unbroken chain of causation between injury and death

The Commission confirmed that the test of causation in a claim for death benefits under the NSW Workers Compensation Act 1987 is the same as in a claim for weekly compensation: if the death ‘results from an injury’, compensation is payable.  

Whether the death results from an injury is a question of fact.  

The Commission found that the evidence supported the conclusion that there was an unbroken chain of causation between the injury to Mr Dadd’s knees and the aggravation of his underlying psychological condition which led to his death.  

Although there may have been some improvement in Mr Dadd’s condition in early 2013, the Commission found that his knee injuries had by no means resolved. The medical evidence indicated his rehabilitation was long and complicated, and that although he was trying his best to return to his pre-injury duties, he was still struggling to do so. 

In coming to this conclusion, the Commission preferred the evidence of Ms Dadd’s medical expert. Of Toll’s medical expert, the commission said his ‘reports are unhelpful’, and that he had been selective in referring to improvements to Mr Dadd’s knees while omitting the many setbacks Mr Dadd had suffered.  

Suicide not an intentional self-inflicted act

Section 14(3) of the Workers Compensation Act states that compensation is not payable in respect of any injury to, or death of, a worker caused by an intentional self-inflicted injury. 

The Commission referred to relevant case law, including Bird v Australian Iron & Steel Pty Ltd, in which Giles JA said:

‘Although [s14(3)] refers to intentional self-inflicted injury, the deliberate act of suicide may be the product of a will so overborne or influenced by the worker’s circumstances that it should not be regarded as an intentional act’ (at [217]).

The Commission preferred the evidence of Ms Dadd’s medical expert, who said that Mr Dadd’s severe depressive symptoms had distorted his judgement and perception. Therefore, Mr Dadd’s suicide was not an intentional act.  

Recovery of death benefits after suicide turns on facts

A worker’s death by suicide does not necessarily prevent the recovery of death benefits under the Workers Compensation Act. Ultimately it depends on the facts of each case. 

The worker’s dependants will generally succeed if it can be proven there is a link between the original work injury and the worker’s ultimate death, and that the worker’s free will was so overcome by their deteriorating mental health that their decision to take their own life was an involuntary act, rather than an intentional self-inflicted act. 

This is an edited version of an article first published by Stacks Law Firm.

The ALA would like to thank Di Branch for this contribution.

Di Branch specialises in compensation law for individuals and corporations in NSW. She has been with Stacks/Taree for 42 years, including 13 years as a paralegal for Maurie Stack and 24 years as practicing solicitor. Di’s expertise lies in handling claims arising from work accidents.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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Tags: Workers compensation Personal Injury Di Branch