Danny Vredenburg was fun, outgoing and enjoyed a lust for life until he slipped on a flight of stairs at work and injured his back in March 2001. He worked as a bartender for the Flamingo Hilton in Laughlin, so his medical treatments were covered by workers' compensation.
His doctors tried a variety of medical treatments to control the pain, even a morphine pump. The pain remained relentless. He couldn't keep food down. He spent most of his time in bed. His personality changed, friends said.
On Jan. 21, 2004, he shot himself in the head, less than three years after the accident. He was 43. He couldn't stand the pain any more.
He wrote his wife, Renee, "I'm finally at peace and out of pain. I'm tired of living my life in bed. ... It's better this happen now than in a few years." He wrote his son, Anthony, then 12, that he hoped he turned out to be a good man. "If you love me, you'll be glad I'm not hurting any more. Be good because I'll be watching."
This sad story of pain ending in suicide has legal ramifications for Nevada's workers' compensation system.
The Vredenburg case has changed the way the law is interpreted. Under a precedent-setting Nevada Supreme Court opinion last week, survivors of workers who commit suicide as a result of an industrial injury won't automatically be rejected for death benefits as they were in the past.
After her husband's death, Renee Sharon Vredenburg filed a claim for death benefits under workers' comp. The law says that in a situation where a death is the result of an industrial injury, the spouse can receive two-thirds of the worker's wages until death or remarriage. If there are children, they may receive half of the two-thirds.
The Flamingo Hilton-Laughlin denied the claim for death benefits, as did an appeals officer, and District Judge Michelle Leavitt. Each time, Vredenburg's attorneys appealed and lost until the Nevada Supreme Court, in the first ruling of its kind in the state, sent the case back for reconsideration. And the court, for the first time, set some standards for future cases related to suicide and workers' compensation.
None of the lawyers I spoke to thought there would be a rash of suicides by injured workers as a result of this ruling.
Vredenburg was represented by Craig Kenny and Billie-Marie Morrison (not related to this columnist). The hotel and third-party administrator Sedgwick CMS were represented by John Lavery.
Las Vegas attorney Gregg Kamer, who wasn't involved in the case and usually argues on behalf of management, said the justices should be praised for making the right decision. He saw no need to distinguish between death by blood poisoning and death from suicide if both are the result of legitimate on-the-job accidents.
"This isn't going to open the floodgates of hell," he predicted.
Morrison said there was no question of medical malpractice in the case.
The Supreme Court opinion established a new standard in industrial injuries, saying a legitimate injury must have caused a psychological condition severe enough to override the employee's rational judgment, causing the employee to commit suicide.
Using that standard, the Vredenburg case goes back to an appeals officer for reconsideration. Before this, death benefits after suicides were denied and considered "willful self-injury" by workers who deliberately injured themselves to receive benefits.
In Vredenburg's case, the suicide was all about endless pain, which is often a contributing factor in the more than 31,000 suicides each year in the United States, and the more than 425,000 death attempts.
But Danny Vredenburg's suicide and his wife's willingness to fight through the legal system will end up helping the families of other Nevada workers whose on-the-job accidents leave them in devastating pain. So this isn't just a story about one case.
Let's just hope no injured worker suffering excruciating pain decides that suicide should be an option because it might help the family's finances. Those death benefits are not a sure thing.
Jane Ann Morrison's column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at [email protected] or call (702) 383-0275.
Is a suicide compensable? In certain circumstances it is, according to a recent ruling by the Nevada Supreme Court in Sharon Vredenburg v. Sedgwick CMA and Flamingo Hilton-Laughlin. While Nevada state law prohibits benefits if a workers death occurs due to a "willful intention to injure himself," this does not apply if a "sufficient chain of causation is established." Roberto Ceniceros of Business Insurance noted that, "To establish such a chain, claimants must demonstrate that the employee suffered an industrial injury that in turn caused a psychological injury severe enough to override rational judgment. Claimants must then establish that the psychological injury caused the employee to commit suicide, the court said.
Dan Vredenburg was a bartender for the Flamingo Hilton in Laughlin. He suffered back injuries in a fall down stairs while working and was compensated for his injuries. According to the ReviewJournal.com, he suffered relentless pain. He couldn't keep food down and spent his life in bed. Nealy three years after this accident, he killed himself. Under the state's "willful intention" clause, his widow was denied benefits several times until the matter reached the Supreme Court and the precedent-setting determination was made.
Steven R. Ramsey was receiving workers compensation benefits after suffering a severe 1988 industrial accident that left him unable to resume work. In 1990, about 5 weeks after his pain medication was mostly discontinued, his pain increased, he became depressed, and he killed himself. In determining to continue benefits, the Court agreed with his widow:
These cases show the importance of addressing pain and depression in recovery plans, particularly those involving life-altering injuries. Suicides in workers comp will likely continue to be outliers, but state courts have shown sympathy to the idea that pain and depression can pierce a "willful intention" defense by the insurer. The courts seem consistent from state-to-state in requiring a chain of causation. But despite the precedent-setting nature, we note Jane Ann Morrison's observation in the Nevada ruling: "None of the lawyers I spoke to thought there would be a rash of suicides by injured workers as a result of this ruling."