Kahle v. Plochman, Inc.

Decision Date27 April 1981
PartiesJan Sherman KAHLE, Petitioner-Appellant, v. PLOCHMAN, INC., Respondent-Respondent.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Gerald M. Eisenstat, Vineland, for petitioner-appellant (Shapiro, Eisenstat, Capizola, O'Neill & Gabage, Vineland, attorneys).

David A. Sacks, Atlantic City, for respondent-respondent (Horn, Kaplan, Goldberg & Gorny, Atlantic City, attorneys; Glenn E. Gronlund, Atlantic City, on the brief).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by


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, 420 A.2d 331 (1980); R. 2:12-1, and now reverse.


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 662/3% 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. 1

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.


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 plant. Respondent denied the compensability of the suicide.

At the ensuing hearing petitioner produced Dr. Theodore Kushner, a neuropsychiatrist who had examined the decedent on two occasions, the second being in January 1976, approximately three months prior to her death. Dr. Kushner testified that at the last examination he found Mrs. Kahle to be depressed and anxious. He diagnosed her psychiatric condition as post-traumatic anxiety depressive reaction, which he assessed at a 40% psychiatric disability rating. He described her psychiatric condition at that time as "chronically anxious and moderately depressed" but "free of psychosis." Dr. Kushner proffered his medical opinion that when he examined the employee in January 1976, "she was totally disabled with no possibility of recovery or rehabilitation." In response to a detailed hypothetical question put forth by counsel for petitioner, the neuropsychiatrist concluded that Mrs. Kahle's suicide was a direct consequence of the work-connected injury she sustained on February 11, 1966, after ten years of unusual suffering, increasing disability, chronic unremitting pain, depression, drug dependency, "and finally the knowledge that she would never recover." Respondent introduced no evidence at the hearing and produced no witnesses of its own, being content to rely on the legal argument that by virtue of N.J.S.A. 34:15-7 suicide is not a compensable death under New Jersey law of workers' compensation.

In ruling that Mrs. Kahle's suicide was "intentionally self-inflicted" within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 34:15-7 and therefore not a compensable death, the compensation judge relied upon the standard announced in the case of In re Sponatski, 220 Mass. 526, 108 N.E. 466 (Mass.1915), adopted sub silentio in Konazewska v. Erie R.R. Co., 132 N.J.L. 424, 41 A.2d 130 (Sup.Ct.1945), aff'd, 133 N.J.L. 557, 45 A.2d 315 (E. & A.1946). Under the Sponatski rule, a suicide following a work-connected injury is compensable only "where there follows as the direct result of a physical injury an insanity of such violence as to cause the victim to take his own life through an uncontrollable impulse or in a delirium of frenzy 'without conscious volition to produce death, (without) having knowledge of the physical consequences of the act' * * *." 220 Mass. at 530, 108 N.E. at 468 (quoting Daniels v. New York, New Haven & Hartford R.R., 183 Mass. 393, 67 N.E. 424 (Mass.1903). Or, as the judge of compensation put it, an employee's suicide is not compensable unless the worker (1) as the direct result of a physical injury, (2) was possessed of an uncontrollable impulse to commit suicide or was in a delirium of frenzy, (3) did not consciously intend to kill himself, and (4) did not realize the consequences of his act of self-destruction. Because the petitioner's proofs fell short of satisfying the Sponatski test, judgment was entered in favor of the employer.

In applying the Sponatski formula to the plight of the employee in the instant case, the judge recognized that Mrs. Kahle unquestionably suffered intense pain from the date of her work-connected injury through the time of her death, and that the mental consequences of this prolonged suffering required two hospitalizations for psychiatric examination. Of greater importance to the judge, however, were the negating facts that employee did not require active psychiatric care, had no diagnosed psychosis, and was 60% functional psychiatrically. He also determined that the employee's conduct immediately prior to her death, particularly the writing of farewell notes to her husband and her physician, evidenced conscious volition to produce death and knowledge of the consequences of her act factors militating against recovery under the Sponatski rule.

The compensation judge was guided by the general statement from Professor Larson's treatise that under Sponatski, "(t)he compensable cases are frequently marked by some violent or eccentric method of self-destruction while the noncompensable cases usually present a story of quiet but ultimately unbearable agony leading to a solitary and undramatic suicide." See 1A Larson, Workmen's Compensation Law § 36.21 (1978). It is apparent that under Sponatski the suicide of the employee in the present case falls within the latter category of tragic but noncompensable cases.


Petitioner's appeal does not challenge the compensation judge's findings of fact. Nor does it disagree that the Sponatski formula is currently recognized as controlling law in New Jersey as to the circumstances under which an employee suicide is an "intentionally self-inflicted" death for the purposes of the statutory exclusion in N.J.S.A. 34:15-7. See Konazewska, supra; Kazazian v. Segan, 14 N.J.Misc. 78, 182 A. 351 (N.J. Dept. Labor 1936). Rather, petitioner's brief urges us to overrule "this antiquated (Sponatski ) doctrine to bring New Jersey in line not only with the modern view in other states, but also with the spirit of our court's prior interpretations of our compensation law."

At the time the Konazewska decision was affirmed by the Court of Errors and Appeals in 1946, the Sponatski test was the standard followed by the majority of states in suicide-compensation cases. This standard, however, has been gradually displaced as the majority rule by the "chain-of-causation" test, under which death benefits may be awarded to dependents of employees whose suicides are shown to be causally related to a disturbance of mind arising from the pain, despair and psychiatric consequences of work-connected injuries. See 1A Larson, supra, at § 36.10. The leading case espousing the chain-of-causation rule is Whitehead v. Keene Roofing Co., 43 So.2d 464 (Fla.1949), in which the Supreme Court of Florida reviewed a widow's claim for death benefits under a statutory provision that precluded compensation for injuries "occasioned primarily * * * by...

To continue reading

Request your trial
16 cases
  • In re Pelmac Indus., Inc.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of New Hampshire
    • October 13, 2021
    ...or "intentional," and for ultimately determining the compensability of an employee's death by suicide. Kahle v. Plochman, Inc., 85 N.J. 539, 428 A.2d 913, 916 (1981) ; see, e.g., Graver Tank & Mfg. Co. v. Industrial Commission, 97 Ariz. 256, 399 P.2d 664, 667-68 (1965) ; Delaware Tire Ctr. ......
  • Hager v. M & K Constr.
    • United States
    • New Jersey Superior Court – Appellate Division
    • January 13, 2020
    ...at 606, 494 A.2d 313. The "claimant bears the burden ... to establish his claim." Id. at 599, 494 A.2d 313 (citing Kahle v. Plochman, 85 N.J. 539, 548, 428 A.2d 913 (1981) ). Here, petitioner testified extensively about his pain, stating he continued to suffer from pain in his lower back th......
  • Brock v. Public Service Elec. & Gas Co.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
    • May 29, 1997
    ...176, 191, 676 A.2d 118 (1996); Squeo v. Comfort Control Corp., 99 N.J. 588, 596, 494 A.2d 313 (1985); see also Kahle v. Plochman, Inc., 85 N.J. 539, 547, 428 A.2d 913 (1981) ("It has long been axiomatic to this Court that the Act is remedial social legislation and should be given liberal co......
  • State ex rel. Wyoming Workers' Compensation Div. v. Ramsey
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • October 8, 1992
    ...followed the resulting operations.2 The annotation also lists the state of New Jersey and provides as its citation Kahle v. Plochman, Inc., 85 N.J. 539, 428 A.2d 913 (1981). That case clearly adopted the chain of causation test and New Jersey can no longer be listed as a Sponatski jurisdict......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT