Workers’ Compensation Does Not Cover Trooper’s Suicide

Trooper Mark Zach of the Nebraska State Patrol died on September 27, 2002, as the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His surviving spouse and children applied for death benefits under Nebraska’s Workers’ Compensation Act. When their request was allowed, the Nebraska State Patrol appealed the decision to the Nebraska Supreme Court. The Court rejected the application for workers’ compensation benefits.

Zach’s family alleged that approximately two weeks prior to his death, Zach stopped several persons while on patrol and discovered that one of them was armed with a pistol. Zach communicated the serial number of the weapon to the dispatcher, but due to a miscommunication error, the weapon was not at that time identified as stolen. Two of the individuals stopped by Zach were subsequently involved in a bank robbery which resulted in multiple fatalities.

On the day following the robbery, Zach was advised by State Patrol officials of the fact that the weapon he had seen was used in the bank robbery. Zach’s family alleged that upon learning this, he felt responsible and became distraught to the point of taking his own life.

The key question before the Supreme Court was whether Nebraska should adopt an approach towards evaluating claims of a psychological disease which requires that the disease arise concurrent with some sort of violence to the body. The operative Nebraska statute states that “injury and personal injuries mean only violence to the physical structure of the body and such disease or infection as naturally results. The terms include disablement resulting from occupational disease arising out of and in the course of the employment in which the employee was engaged.”

The Court found that “the plain meaning of the two sentences, read together, is that disability due to occupational disease is compensable only if it results from violence to the physical structure of the body. Because Zach’s injury is alleged to have resulted entirely from a mental stimulus, no claim is stated for injury caused by occupational disease.”

The Court clearly was a bit uneasy with the results in the case, observing that “Nebraska is one of only five states having workers’ compensation statutes which define compensable injury in terms of violence to the physical structure of the body. Whether to allow compensation for work-related injuries caused by a mental stimulus is a question that involves economic and social policy considerations that fall within the provice of the Legislature.”

Zach v. Nebraska State Patrol, 727 N.W.2d 206 (Neb. 2007).

The article appears in our April 2007 issue.