Vermont’s workers’ compensation law provides certain benefits to the spouse and dependent family members of employees who die as the result of a work-related injury or illness. Typically, such claims must be submitted within six months of the employee’s death. But failure to meet this deadline may be excused if there is proof the employer “had knowledge of the accident” leading to the employee’s death or the employer suffered no prejudice as a result of any delay.
Company CFO Reportedly Committed Suicide Due to Work-Related Stress
An ongoing Vermont workers’ compensation dispute discussed this and other important legal issues arising from an employee’s death. This case, Weinheimer v. Turtle Fur Co., involved an accountant who died as the result of suicide. At the time of his death, the deceased was employed as the chief financial officer of an outdoor headwear company (the employer). The deceased also maintained his own solo acc
ounting practice and provided services to at least two other companies.
Between 2012 and 2020 the deceased reported suffering from work-related stress. In November 2020, he died from suicide. Nearly two years later, the estate of the deceased filed a workers’ compensation claim, naming both the employer and the accounting practice as defendants.
The Vermont Department of Labor quickly dismissed the accounting practice as a defendant. As the sole corporate officer of said practice, the deceased had exercised his right under Vermont law to exclude himself from workers’ compensation coverage. (The law permits exclusion of up to four officers or members of a corporation or limited liability company.) This exclusion effectively barred the estate from recovering any workers’ comp benefits from the accounting practice’s insurance carrier.
The headwear company argued this exclusion also meant it was not responsible for providing any workers’ compensation coverage for the deceased. On January 19, 2023, the Vermont Department of Labor issued a decision rejecting the employer’s motion for summary judgment on that basis. Harrington explained that the employer did not contract with the deceased’s accounting practice for his services. Rather, the deceased was directly employed by the employer to serve as its chief financial officer.
This is an important distinction in Vermont workers’ compensation law. Generally speaking, when you hire someone as a subcontractor, they are responsible for providing their own workers’ comp insurance. The subcontractor cannot exclude itself from coverage and then seek protection under the general contractor’s policy. But in this scenario, Harrington said, there was “no indication” that the employer ever told its own workers’ compensation insurer that the deceased “was an independent contractor who should not be covered under its workers’ compensation policy.” So the employer cannot escape a possible workers’ compensation claim based on a lack of coverage argument.
The ruling also rejected the employer’s argument that the estate’s claim should be barred because it was filed after the six-month filing deadline passed. The commissioner agreed with the estate that the employer was both notified of the deceased’s injury–his boss knew about the work-related stress problem several months before the suicide–and there was no evidence of any prejudice suffered by the employer as a result of the delay. The commissioner noted this was not a case where any delay prevented the employer from conducting its own examination of the employee–a common practice in workers’ compensation cases–because he was already deceased.
Does Workers’ Compensation Cover Suicide?
The commissioner’s ruling did not address the merits of the estate’s claim, i.e., that the deceased’s suicide was a work-related injury. You might be wondering if such claims are even viable under workers’ compensation law. In fact, a number of states have addressed similar cases in recent years and found that employee suicide may be covered in certain cases.
For example, in 2021 the New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld the award of death benefits in a workers’ compensation case where an employee committed suicide three months after sustaining serious injuries in a work-related car accident. The Court said that where the estate can prove a “chain of causation” between the original, work-related injury and the subsequent suicide, the estate may claim benefits. While the law generally forbids employees from seeking benefits for self-inflicted injuries, the New Hampshire judges said that when the evidence shows a suicide “resulted from a disturbance of mind of such severity as to override normal, rational judgment,” and that disturbance was the direct result of a work-related injury, the general rule did not apply.
Speak with a Vermont Workers’ Compensation Attorney Today
If you have been injured in a workplace accident–or lost a family member due to such injuries–it is important to take prompt action to protect your legal rights. Our experiencedVermont workers’ compensation lawyers can help. Call us today at 802-327-8458 to schedule a free initial consultation.