Fitzgibbons' Case, In re

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Writing for the CourtABRAMS
Citation374 Mass. 633,373 N.E.2d 1174
PartiesIn re Vincent P. FITZGIBBONS' (dependent's) CASE. *
Decision Date15 March 1978

Page 1174

373 N.E.2d 1174
374 Mass. 633
In re Vincent P. FITZGIBBONS' (dependent's) CASE.
Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk.
Argued Nov. 9, 1977.
Decided March 15, 1978.

Page 1175

[374 Mass. 634] Paul F. X. Powers, Boston, for self-insurer.

Bernard T. Loughran, Belmont, for claimant.

Before [374 Mass. 633] BRAUCHER, WILKINS, LIACOS and ABRAMS, JJ.

[374 Mass. 634] ABRAMS, Justice.

This is an appeal by the self-insurer from a judgment of the Superior Court awarding compensation to the deceased employee's widow under the Workmen's Compensation Act, G.L. c. 152. The judgment affirmed the decision of the reviewing board which had affirmed and adopted the findings and decision of the single member. We granted an application for direct appellate review.

The crux of the self-insurer's appeal concerns whether there were errors of law which tainted a finding by the Industrial Accident Board (board) that a mental or emotional disorder caused by a mental or emotional shock suffered at work is a "personal injury arising out of employment." We find no errors of law and affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

We summarize the facts. On August 24, 1973, the employee, Vincent P. Fitzgibbons (Fitzgibbons), a supervisory corrections officer at the Billerica house of correction, ordered several officers to place an inmate in a more segregated unit in an effort to quell an inmate disturbance at the facility. During the removal of the inmate a scuffle ensued. One officer involved in the altercation became ill and was dispatched first to an infirmary and then to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Fitzgibbons, on being informed of the officer's death, began to cry and became very shaky and upset. Fitzgibbons then went to the infirmary and later to a hospital where a diagnosis of acute anxiety reaction was made and medication was prescribed. Within a day or two Fitzgibbons saw his own doctor who prescribed even stronger medication.

[374 Mass. 635] After the incident on August 24, Fitzgibbons never worked again. He became withdrawn and talked mostly of the officer's death and of his personal responsibility for the death. During conversations with his wife, his family, and the assistant deputy master of the facility, Fitzgibbons often cried and appeared nervous and upset over the officer's death.

On September 14, he kept an appointment with a representative of the county retirement board. According to the county representative, Fitzgibbons appeared in good spirits. Mrs. Fitzgibbons (claimant) came home about 1:45 P.M. Shortly after her arrival she found her husband bleeding from the head due to a gunshot wound. Fitzgibbons was taken to the hospital. On

Page 1176

October 5, 1973, he died from the gunshot wound.

The board in adopting and affirming the findings of the single member found that following the prison incident "the employee became obsessed with guilt, and was unable to function normally, concentrating solely on his imaginary responsibility for the death of a guard. As a result of his obsession and overwhelming guilt, the employee shot himself . . . ." Accordingly, the board concluded that "the employee sustained a personal injury on August 24, 1973, as evidenced by his immediate emotional reaction following the dramatic incident at work. . . . (A)s result of said injury, i.e., psychotic depression, the employee committed suicide and . . . said suicide was the result of the employee being of 'such unsoundness of mind as to make him irresponsible for his act of suicide' (G.L. c. 152, § 26A)."

The self-insurer first argues that the evidence is insufficient to sustain the board's finding of causal connection between the prison incident of August 24, 1973, and the employee's suicide. Where the causation between the work-related injury and the resulting physical or psychological ramifications is not common knowledge, as is the case here, expert testimony is required. The probative value of this testimony is to be weighed by the fact-finding tribunal. The board's decision is "to be accepted as final if . . . supported [374 Mass. 636] by the evidence, including all rational inferences which could be drawn therefrom, and if not tainted by error of law." Foley's Case, 358 Mass. 230, 232, 263 N.E.2d 471, 472 (1970). Haley's Case, 356 Mass. 678, 680, 255 N.E.2d 322 (1970).

The self-insurer's expert testified that the employee suffered from involutional or change of life melancholia which began at the time of the employee's hospital admissions for treatment of his diverticulitis 1 and that the employee's depression leading to suicide was the result of the involutional melancholia, not the August 24 incident.

The psychiatrist called on behalf of the claimant testified that the employee suffered from a psychotic depressive reaction caused by the prison incident and that the psychotic depressive reaction was responsible for the unsoundness of mind that resulted in suicide. The testimony of this expert if believed disposes of the self-insurer's argument that the evidence was insufficient to warrant a finding of causal connection. Lambert's Case, 364 Mass. 832, 304 N.E.2d 428 (1973). It is within the province of the board to accept the medical testimony of one expert and to discount that of another. Rennie's Case, 357 Mass. 640, 644, 260 N.E.2d 186 (1970). Rackowski's Case, 273 Mass. 363, 364, 173 N.E. 521 (1930).

The claimant's expert gave reasons for his opinion and explained that the employee's medical history and background were more consistent with a diagnosis of psychotic depressive reaction resulting from the prison incident than with a diagnosis of involutional melancholia. This evidence constitutes more than the mere possibility or chance of the existence of a causal connection between the employee's work [374 Mass. 637] experience and condition. The board's decision is supported by the record and thus must be sustained. Anderson's Case, --- Mass. ---, --- a, 370 N.E.2d 692 (1977).

The insurer next contends that the personal injury in this case is not compensable. While the term "personal injury" is not defined comprehensively under our act, G.L. c. 152, § 1(7A), it has been interpreted in light of the act's policy to provide "relief...

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