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Kahle v. Plochman Inc.

Decided: April 27, 1981.

JAN SHERMAN KAHLE, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
v.
PLOCHMAN, INC., RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT



On certification to the Division of Workers' Compensation.

For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Sullivan, Pashman, Clifford, Schreiber, Handler and Pollock. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Clifford, J.

Clifford

The Workers' Compensation Act precludes an award of compensation "when the injury or death is intentionally self-inflicted." N.J.S.A. 34:15-7. Petitioner's decedent was injured in an accident arising out of and in the course of her employment. Ten years later she committed suicide. The judge of compensation dismissed petitioner's dependency claim petition on the ground that the employee's death was "intentionally self-inflicted" within the meaning of the statutory preclusion. We ordered direct certification of petitioner's appeal pending unheard in the Appellate Division, 84 N.J. 417 (1980); R. 2:12-1, and now reverse.

I

On February 11, 1966 Rosalie Kahle (employee) was seriously injured in the course of her employment when a skid fell on her back at respondent's mustard-packing plant in Vineland, New Jersey. Employee was twenty-six years old, was married, had one child, and was three months pregnant with her second child at the time of the accident. She sustained injuries to her back and left leg which over the course of the next several years required hospitalization surgical removal of a lumbar disc and spinal fusion, and the prescription of medication for pain and depression. In 1971 a judge of compensation awarded 66 2/3% permanent partial disability for the orthopedic, neurological and psychiatric consequences of her work-connected accident.

The years of Mrs. Kahle's life following the compensation award continued to be dominated by unremitting pain and increasing disability. She never returned to work. Her medications included anti-depressants, pain relievers and sleeping

pills. She was diagnosed as suffering at various times from a convulsive disorder caused by drug withdrawal, severe compressive lumbar and dorsal arachnoiditis (inflammation of the membrane of the spinal cord), a neurogenic bladder, anemia, iron deficiency and chronic cystitis. Mrs. Kahle was rehospitalized in 1972 for spinal injections and again in 1973 for the surgical implant of a dorsal column stimulator (a battery operated electrode positioned below the collarbone and intended to eliminate pain electronically), a measure later conceded to have been unsuccessful. There were further hospitalizations in 1974 and on three occasions in 1975. Dorsal nerve blocks were performed and Mrs. Kahle was reduced to using crutches. In late 1975, trying to negotiate some cellar stairs she fell and injured her head, neck and back, resulting in additional hospital confinement. Thereafter the treating physician prescribed foot drop braces for both feet. A month before her death Mrs. Kahle received a nerve block for chest pain and two weeks later a renewal of a narcotic prescription.*fn1

During the night preceding her death petitioner's decedent complained of pain and slept fitfully. Sometime after four o'clock in the morning of May 2, 1976 she wrote two poignant notes, one to her husband and the other to her treating physician of ten years. Shortly thereafter she ended her life with a single rifle shot to her head. The notes make it abundantly clear that Mrs. Kahle was no longer able to bear her pain, anxiety and depression.

II

Petitioner, widower of the deceased employee and father of their two young sons, filed a claim for death benefits for himself

and on behalf of the children. The dependency claim petition alleged that Mrs. Kahle's suicide was the result of the severe pain, anxiety and depression caused by the work-connected injuries sustained in the accident at respondent's ...


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