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City of Streator v. Industrial Com.





Appeal from the Circuit Court of La Salle County, the Hon. Alexander T. Bower, Judge, presiding.


An arbitrator for the Industrial Commission found that while employed by respondent, the city of Streator, Ronald Lamagno sustained accidental injuries which caused his death. He awarded workmen's compensation to petitioners, Patricia Lamagno, decedent's widow, and to Carl Lamagno, decedent's father, on behalf of decedent's five minor children by prior marriages. The petitioner-widow was awarded compensation in the amount of $112 per week for 1,248 weeks and $44 for one week. The arbitrator, finding that decedent was under a legal obligation to support the five minor children he left surviving him, awarded them the maximum compensation for a fatal injury allowable under the Workmen's Compensation Act. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 48, par. 138.8.) On review the Industrial Commission affirmed the award. On certiorari the circuit court of La Salle County confirmed, and respondent appealed pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 302(a). 73 Ill.2d R. 302(a).

It was stipulated that on May 14, 1978, decedent, while in the course of his employment as a fireman, suffered an accidental injury to his back. The testimony shows that he was hospitalized from that date until June 2, 1978. He continued to seek and receive medical care over the following weeks and was last examined by a physician on July 6, 1978. On July 15, 1978, the body of decedent was found lying in his automobile, which was parked in the garage of his home. He had apparently died from carbon-monoxide poisoning, and his death was considered a suicide. Decedent had not returned to work since his injury on May 14, 1978.

At the hearing before the arbitrator, petitioners offered into evidence the depositions of two physicians taken by respondent. The deposition of Dr. James Gottemoller, decedent's family physician, was taken August 9, 1979. He stated that on May 5, 1978, he admitted decedent to St. Mary's Hospital in Streator for a condition he diagnosed as anxiety neurosis with hyperventilation. Decedent was discharged May 7, 1978. Dr. Gottemoller testified that his medical history showed that approximately eight or nine years prior to this incident decedent had marital problems, and during that time was "in the hospital a couple of times under similar circumstances." Dr. Gottemoller's next contact with decedent was on May 14, 1978, at which time he was admitted to the emergency room at St. Mary's Hospital. Dr. Gottemoller examined decedent the next day at the hospital, at which time he was complaining of severe back pain suffered as the result of trying to open a fire hydrant the previous day. Dr. Gottemoller performed a straight-leg-raising test on decedent and found that his responses to the test were exaggerated. At the time of the examination, Dr. Gottemoller noted in his records that decedent had historically been a high-strung, emotional, nervous individual. Dr. Gottemoller concluded from his examination that decedent had suffered a back injury, the nature, cause and extent undetermined at that point in time. On May 16, 1978, Dr. Gottemoller referred decedent for treatment to Dr. Dennis Garwacki, a neurologist, and decedent was transferred to St. Francis Hospital in Peoria. Decedent was transferred back to St. Mary's Hospital on May 18, 1978, where he remained hospitalized until his discharge on June 2, 1978. Dr. Gottemoller stated that during this time, possibly with the exception of May 18, he was in contact with decedent every day. Following decedent's discharge, Dr. Gottemoller again examined him on June 13, 1978, at which time he complained of stiffness and mild pain. On June 21, 1978, Dr. Gottemoller again saw decedent, who indicated that he was still having some back pain and tired easily. Dr. Gottemoller noted that decedent was gaining weight and recommended that he commence exercises, including walking and jogging on a daily basis. On June 22, 1978, decedent complained of a sore left rib. In his records Dr. Gottemoller noted "reassurance," which, according to Dr. Gottemoller, indicated that the patient needed reassuring that there was no difficulty such as heart or lung problems. On June 28, 1978, Dr. Gottemoller again saw decedent, at which time decedent said that he was stiff and that he thought the exercise was making him worse, but assured Dr. Gottemoller that he had been exercising daily. At this time decedent asked to be referred to Dr. Kenneth Bussey, an orthopedic surgeon at the Christie Clinic in Champaign. Dr. Gottemoller made the referral and did not see decedent again. During direct examination Dr. Gottemoller was asked a hypothetical question as to whether, based on a reasonable degree of medical certainty, he had an opinion whether or not the injury of May 14, 1978, would have or could have caused a condition in decedent which would cause him to commit suicide. After indicating that he had no such opinion, the doctor stated, "Maybe he committed suicide because his mother didn't like him. Maybe he committed suicide because he had the backache. Maybe he committed suicide because he had a fight with his parish priest. Maybe he committed suicide because of his marital difficulties. I do not know." On cross-examination Dr. Gottemoller indicated that if decedent had experienced severe pain, the pain could have contributed to his suicide.

Petitioners also offered into evidence the deposition of Dr. Dennis Garwacki, a neurologist, taken on July 18, 1979. Dr. Garwacki examined decedent at St. Francis Hospital in Peoria on May 16, 1978, and found muscle spasms of decedent's lumbar muscles. Dr. Garwacki found that decedent was overreactive in his responses to minimal movement and stated that reclining seemed to cause him severe pain. Overall, decedent complained of severe lumbar pain, and Dr. Garwacki's impression was that decedent suffered acute lumbosacral strain. Based on this diagnosis Dr. Garwacki prescribed a conservative course of treatment, including pain medication, muscle relaxants, and physical therapy. When asked a hypothetical question similar to that asked of Dr. Gottemoller concerning the cause of suicide, Dr. Garwacki indicated that he could express no such opinion. Dr. Garwacki stated that decedent had tended to be very emotional in his outbursts and considered this was important in order to understand the personality of decedent. Dr. Garwacki stated that due to the wishes of decedent and his family, decedent was transferred back to St. Mary's Hospital on May 18, 1978. Dr. Garwacki had no further contact with him.

Petitioners also offered into evidence the deposition of Dr. Kenneth Bussey, taken by petitioner on June 20, 1979. Dr. Bussey, an orthopedic surgeon, examined decedent at the Christie Clinic in Champaign on July 6, 1978, at which time he complained of pain radiating down into his left leg to the knee when he was in a sitting position. He complained that this pain increased if he coughed or sneezed or rode in an automobile. During this examination Dr. Bussey observed that decedent experienced some mild pain when bending forward and laterally. An examination of X-ray films taken of the lumbosacral region of decedent's spine showed a spondylolysis, a defect in a portion of the vertebrae, which the doctor considered developmental in origin. Dr. Bussey stated the significance of the finding of spondylolysis was that a patient suffering from this defect was more likely to rupture a disk than someone in the normal population. He stated that the injury of May 14 could have aggravated the spondylolysis and said that he could not rule out definitely the presence of a herniated disk. Dr. Bussey recommended that decedent be fitted with a lumbosacral corset and return for consultation in one month. Dr. Bussey never again saw decedent. No hypothetical question concerning the cause of suicide was posed to Dr. Bussey.

Patricia Lamagno, decedent's widow, testified that she and decedent were married on May 8, 1974. Mrs. Lamagno described decedent's personality prior to May 14, 1978, as very outgoing and his condition of health prior to that time as excellent. She stated that prior to May 14, 1978, she did not notice that decedent had any complaints with respect to his back. Mrs. Lamagno testified that, after the back injury suffered on May 14, decedent complained constantly about the pain in his back and that decedent's physical activity decreased. She said that he could not sit and that he basically remained lying down or in a standing position. Mrs. Lamagno testified that, approximately a week and a half to two weeks prior to decedent's death, she and decedent separated and she moved out of the family residence. She stated that she had seen an attorney about getting a separation from decedent. She said that although she and decedent were living separately they were living "back and forth" between the two residences. On July 14, 1978, Mrs. Lamagno returned to the family residence to prepare to attend with decedent the wedding and reception of his sister, which were to take place that evening. That afternoon Mrs. Lamagno and decedent had sexual intercourse. Mrs. Lamagno attended the wedding and reception with decedent, and during the course of the evening noticed that decedent was not very talkative or active, and that he had only one or two alcoholic drinks. After the reception Mrs. Lamagno drove decedent and his children to the family residence and then drove herself and her daughter to their residence. Decedent later stopped by her residence to pick up the clothes of one of his daughters. The next morning, July 15, 1978, Mrs. Lamagno went to the family residence and could not find decedent in the house. She then went to the garage and found decedent's body lying in the front seat of his automobile. Decedent was dressed in the same suit he had worn to the wedding. Mrs. Lamagno went in the house and called Carl Lamagno, decedent's father, and an ambulance. Mrs. Lamagno then went to decedent's bedroom and on the dresser found two notes allegedly written by decedent, one of which she destroyed, and the other was given to the La Salle County coroner. Mrs. Lamagno stated the notes had not been on the dresser when she was in the bedroom the previous day. Over respondent's objection the remaining note was admitted into evidence. The note reads as follows:

"Dear Pat

I love you and Tonya and the other kids. My parents and Carl and Art. I hope no one will be mad at me. But do [sic] to my pains and back trouble my ups and downs there is no way to go on. I really love everybody and I hope they will forgive me. The 74 Cad is yours and my pension from the firehouse.

I hope you will help take care of everything seen [sic] you know where everything is. I will always love you deeply and all of the others to [sic].

Love you all.


No medical testimony was presented concerning the cause of decedent's death, but it was stipulated that his body had an extremely high level of carbon monoxide.

The arbitrator found that decedent sustained accidental injuries arising out of and in the course of his employment with respondent on July 15, 1978, and on review the decision of the arbitrator was affirmed by the Industrial Commission. The circuit court of La Salle County found that "the suicide of Ronald Lamagno, 15 July, 1978, was not an intervening cause between the date of the injury of May 14, 1978, and his death, but was rather an intervening act; an intervening cause being one occurring entirely independent of the prior cause. The suicide was part of an unbroken chain of events from the injury to the death; therefore the suicide was an accidental injury within the meaning of the Workmen's Compensation Act of the State of Illinois compensable thereunder. That the findings of the Industrial Commission and the arbitrator, as stated above, are not contrary ...

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