April 17, 2009
TRACEY WILDE, PETITIONER-RESPONDENT,
TOWNSHIP OF CRANFORD, RESPONDENT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Division of Workers' Compensation, CP No. 99-40680.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 27, 2009
Before Judges Graves and Grall.
Following a trial, the Workers' Compensation Court awarded dependency benefits to petitioner Tracey Wilde (Tracey) and her two children. On appeal, the Township of Cranford (Township) contends the court erred in finding that petitioner's husband, Russell Scott Wilde, Sr., (Wilde) suffered a stress-induced occupational suicide, which was compensable. After considering the Township's arguments in light of the record and the applicable law, we are satisfied there is sufficient credible evidence in the record to support the court's determination that Wilde's work during Hurricane Floyd "led to a loss of normal rational judgment that resulted in his suicide." Accordingly, we affirm.
Wilde was born on December 26, 1965, graduated from Cranford High School in 1984, and joined the Cranford Police Department in 1985. Tracey and Wilde were married on February 14, 1992, and they had two children: the first born in 1993, and the second born in 1995. Wilde was promoted to detective in 1990, sergeant in 1994, and lieutenant in 1999. As lieutenant, Wilde was responsible for supervising approximately fifteen patrolmen and two sergeants. During the course of his fourteen-year career, Wilde received numerous awards for professionalism and heroism.
On Thursday, September 16, 1999, when Hurricane Floyd struck, Wilde was designated Incident Commander, and he was put in charge of coordinating the Township's rescue and recovery efforts. From Thursday, September 16, 1999, to Saturday, September 18, 1999, Wilde worked approximately thirty-eight hours in a fifty-one hour period.
Tracey testified that her husband did not come home from work Thursday night. When she visited him at the police station on Friday afternoon, he was the only one "with his heavy rain gear on" even though the sun was out. She also testified that her husband was "wired" when he arrived home Friday evening, he could not "settle down," and he did "not really" sleep "much" Friday night. Wilde left for work at approximately 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. Saturday morning and did not return home until approximately 6:00 p.m.
Later that evening, Tracey and her husband attended a fellow police officer's wedding. Tracey testified that her husband looked "very tired" so she drove to the wedding, which was unusual. During the wedding reception, Tracey did not note anything unusual in his behavior, and he appeared to be enjoying himself. Before leaving the wedding, Wilde spoke to his father, Harry Wilde, who was the Chief of Police for the Township. After her husband spoke with his father, Tracey testified he "seemed more wired again and more . . . on edge and worrying about the next day, and what . . . his duties were going to be."
As Tracey drove home, her husband appeared tired, and he was talking about the next day. Tracey testified that her husband appeared to be "worrying about what's going to happen the next day," which was unusual because he "was never a worrier." Tracey also testified that her husband told her about "people [who] had eight feet of water in [the] first floors of their homes," which destroyed everything.
After arriving home, Tracey and her husband went upstairs to their bedroom. According to Tracey, her husband again discussed what happened at work, and he said he "was very exhausted." Tracey further testified that although her husband was not a religious person, he stated "you have to be so thankful for God. You must have an angel looking over you. . . . You know how lucky we are. We had an angel looking over us." Tracey testified that her husband "never talked like that before," and it was "very strange."
Tracey explained that during this time, she was walking back and forth from the bedroom to the bathroom, which was across the hall. As she came back into the bedroom, she saw her husband reach high up on a dresser where he kept his gun. She testified:
I figured, well, he must be reaching for it or putting it away or something and he said if you saw what I saw, you would want to die, and I just remember standing there looking and I heard a loud noise and then I don't even remember, but he was on the ground; that's all I remember, just him.
Tracey telephoned 9-1-1, and the police arrived shortly thereafter. Wilde was transported by helicopter to the trauma center at University Hospital in Newark. He died from a gunshot wound to the head at 12:04 a.m., Sunday, September 19, 1999.
On December 17, 1999, Tracey filed a dependency claim petition with the Division of Workers' Compensation alleging that her husband's death was the result of a stress-induced occupational suicide.
New Jersey's "workers' compensation scheme provides a remedy to an employee who suffers injury 'arising out of and in the course of employment' either by accident, N.J.S.A. 34:15-7, or by contracting a compensable occupational disease, N.J.S.A. 34:15-34." Brunell v. Wildwood Crest Police Dep't, 176 N.J. 225, 236 (2003). The "accidental injury" statute, at issue here, precludes an award of compensation "when the injury or death is intentionally self-inflicted." N.J.S.A. 34:15-7. In Kahle v. Plochman, Inc., 85 N.J. 539, 545-46 (1981), the Court adopted the "chain-of-causation test" as the standard for determining whether a suicide is "intentional" under N.J.S.A. 34:15-7. Thus, the central issue at trial was whether Wilde's suicide was compensable because his death was caused by work-connected injuries. See Kahle, supra, 85 N.J. at 548 ("Petitioner must prove by a preponderance of the expert medical evidence that there was an unbroken chain of causation between the compensable injury, the employee's disturbance of mind, and [his] ultimate suicide.").
Since Kahle, the Court has recognized the "so-called mental-mental category of compensable injury," which are "cases in which a purely mental stimulus results in emotional or nervous injury." Brunell, supra, 176 N.J. at 243 (citing 2 Arthur Larson, Larson's Workers' Compensation Law, § 56.04 at 56-16 (2000)). In Brunell, supra, 176 N.J. at 246, the Court recognized that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may qualify as a compensable injury under the Workers' Compensation Act "either as an accidental injury or an occupational disease, depending on the facts."
Other jurisdictions have permitted dependency benefits where the mental disturbance and resultant suicide were caused by a work-related stressor, such as over-work, mental strain, or a traumatic event although the suicide was not preceded by a non-mental "physical injury." For example, in Globe Security Sys. Co. v. Workmen's Comp. Appeal Bd., 520 A.2d 545 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1987), aff'd, 544 A.2d 953 (Pa. 1988), dependency benefits were awarded to the widow of a security guard who committed suicide immediately after accidentally shooting a robbery suspect. The court held, under the chain-of-causation test, that the decedent suffered a work-related mental injury--an acute psychotic episode--which resulted in his suicide. Id. at 547; see also Findley v. Indus. Comm'n of Az., 660 P.2d 874 (Az. Ct. App. 1983) (awarding compensation to the widow of employee who suffered two years of work-related stress and subsequently committed suicide at home).
Here, the court found the testimony of Tracey Wilde "consistent and credible."
The court finds Tracey Wilde's testimony credible, in part, to the effect that the decedent's personality was generally relaxed and that he would separate his work and home life. Her testimony regarding Lt. Wilde's activities during the hurricane emergency, her description of him as tired, wired and without the ability to settle down, and his apparent inability to sleep were consistent and credible. Similarly, the court finds her testimony credible that Lt. Wilde told her that he felt a duty to attend the subject wedding, enjoyed himself at the wedding, [and] did not demonstrate any unusual behavior there . . . . In addition, the court finds petitioner's testimony very credible regarding the apparent change in Lt. Wilde's behavior during the drive home from the wedding and the events at her home when Lt. Wilde took his life. There, her testimony is uncontradicted by any other material evidence.
Overall, the court accepts her testimony as credible based on her ability to relate facts with consistency and the straightforward manner in which she presented herself. Mrs. Wilde generally responded in a reasonable and logical fashion. Furthermore, her testimony is substantially consistent with her initial statements, subsequent investigatory interviews, and subsequent statements given to the parties' experts. There has been no showing of any salient contradictions in her testimony. Her testimony that Lt. Wilde was tired after such an emergency is reasonable and the court finds to be expected. All witness's [sic] agree that Lt. Wilde's behavior at the wedding was not unusual.
The court also noted that Sergeant Christopher Chapman, who testified for Tracey, "refused to lie on the stand." Chapman, served as Wilde's assistant during Hurricane Floyd, and was with him continuously between 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, September 16, 1999, and 6:00 p.m. the next day. Chapman also testified that the following quotations attributed to him by a local newspaper were accurate:
He never slept, never took a catnap . . . at about 2:00 p.m. Friday I saw him nodding off for a second and asked if he wanted to take a break, and he said, I'm good, man, I'm good. . . . .
He would be the sponge, the person who absorbed all of the negative comments and frustration from residents . . . . He was a leader and role model, and he was more concerned with other people's problems than his.
On the other hand, the court did not find Chief Eric Mason's testimony credible:
Essentially, Chief Eric Mason testified that he did not believe that the storm events contributed to Lt. Wilde's suicide.
He conceded that he had previously stated that, in part, Lt. Wilde had worked almost without rest, and that stress had contributed to the suicide. The court notes that these statements were made to the press immediately following the suicide. The thrust of Chief Eric Mason's testimony is that Lt. Wilde did not appear to be under any special stress. The court does not find this testimony credible . . . because of the clear insincerity demonstrated by Chief Mason when he broke down as he tried to explain his prior inconsistent statements.
The court also heard extensive testimony from Dr. John M. Violanti, Ph.D., who testified as an expert on police suicide. Dr. Violanti holds masters degrees in Counseling Psychology and Social Sciences, and a Ph.D. in Sociology. He is a former New York State Trooper and instructor at the New York State Police Academy. Violanti is currently a research professor at the University of Buffalo and has received a grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to study occupational police stress. In addition, he published two books, and is also the author or co-author of numerous articles published in peer-reviewed journals. Accordingly, Dr. Violanti was qualified as an expert based on his extensive educational and professional background, as well as "his practical experience working with patients in agencies in [the] narrow field" of police suicide.
Dr. Violanti concluded that Wilde's "suicide was most strongly influenced by his work related exposure to and involvement in the Cranford Township flood, the precipitating traumatic event."
Lt. Wilde's work injury and subsequent suicide was directly caused by an acute post trauma stress reaction brought about by an incident specific work event-the Cranford Township flood which occurred in a workplace setting. Trauma was further intensified by his close direct exposure and in-depth participation in rescue operations during the precipitating traumatic event.
Lt. Wilde's suicide was additionally exacerbated by fatigue brought about by an extended tour of duty during the precipitating traumatic flood event which, according to testimony, ranged from 27 to 36 hours without relief, an inordinate amount of hours to be worked by any one person. It is well accepted in the medical community that fatigue as well as stress can impair normal judgment and lead to disturbances in thinking due to hormonal dysregulation, sleep deprivation and circadian disruption.
Lt. Wilde was concurrently impacted by his desire to be the best police officer in the department. . . . His neat appearance, involvement in education and the community, being the perfect supervisor and friends with all, and a good family man are indications of a need to be perfect. . . . This has been termed by psychologists as "socially prescribed perfectionism", a belief that others have and maintain unrealistic and exaggerated expectations that are difficult and impossible to obtain.
[L]t. Wilde was under duress not only due to the traumatic work experience but also to long hours and fatigue. These work related factors combined to increased [sic] the risk of suicide. Work hours were under the control of the police department and should have been shortened by the use of rotating incident commanders. Research and medical evidence clearly specifies that fatigue can disrupt individuals physiologically and psychologically, leading to disease as well as depression.
Judge Berich found that the testimony and opinions provided by Dr. Violanti and petitioner's other expert witness, Dr. Peter M. Crain, were consistent and persuasive:
The court is more persuaded by the opinion of Drs. Crain and Violanti that there was a causal connection between work and Lt. Wilde's suicide. The foundational facts used in supporting their opinions are intuitively appealing. Here, Lt. Wilde may be said to have been a very-hard working, conscientious individual. He certainly had high expectations of himself. Lt. Wilde physically aided in the rescue, along with supervising and bearing the substantial responsibility for the rescue effort while working a significantly overtimed shift. It is reasonable to assume that he was exhausted. The court is persuaded by Dr. Crain's explanation that Lt. Wilde demonstrated a change in character which evinced a disturbance of the mind. . . . Dr. Crain reasonably explained that given Lt. Wilde's well documented superachiever personality, under the extreme circumstances he faced as Incident Commander during Hurricane Floyd, Lt. Wilde behaved irrationally, believing that he did not do enough and the lieutenant committed suicide.
Dr. Violanti similarly noted that Lt. Wilde demonstrated social perfectionism in his professional career. He reasonably explained that such perfectionism, along with fatigue in a traumatic situation can lead to helplessness, and then if the coping mechanism is materially impaired, to suicide. Dr. Violanti's explanation of the elements of trauma and potential deregulation of the cognitive process, provided a reasonable nexus between Lt. Wilde's work during Hurricane Floyd and the resultant fatigue as revealed by the evidence which led to the Lieutenant's suicide.
Contrariwise, the court concluded that the testimony and opinions provided by the Township's medical expert, Dr. David J. Gallina, were entitled to less weight. While acknowledging the burden of proof was on the petitioner, the court noted that Dr. Galena was unable to offer any objective evidence showing Wilde's suicide was not work related. In addition, the court found that Dr. Gallina's conclusions were undercut by his admission that he placed no weight on Chief Mason's statement that Wilde was sleep deprived and Galena's own testimony that Wilde's behavior did not substantially change during the flood. Furthermore, Dr. Galena's assertion that "lack of sleep was not a contributing factor in terms of suicidality" was contradicted by both of petitioner's experts.
After carefully evaluating all of the evidence, Judge Berich concluded that petitioner's proofs satisfied the "chain of causation test," announced by Kahle, supra, 85 N.J. at 546. Accordingly, the court entered an order on February 8, 2008, awarding dependency benefits to Tracey and her children.
The standard governing appellate review of workers' compensation decisions is well settled. The scope of review "is limited to a determination of 'whether the findings made could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record, considering the proofs as a whole, with due regard to the opportunity of the one who heard the witnesses to judge their credibility.'" Earl v. Johnson & Johnson, 158 N.J. 155, 161 (1999) (quoting Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965) (internal quotation omitted)); accord Wood v. Jackson Township, 383 N.J. Super. 250, 253 (App. Div. 2006).
We are convinced that the compensation judge's findings "reasonably could have been reached on the basis of sufficient credible evidence in the record." Wood, supra, 383 N.J. Super. at 253. The court's findings, including its credibility findings, are adequately supported by substantial credible evidence, Rule 2:11-3(e)(1)(A), and the court properly applied the "chain-of-causation" test. Accordingly, we affirm substantially for the reasons stated by Workers' Compensation Judge Leslie Berich, in her comprehensive oral opinion on January 17, 2008.
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