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May 17, 1996


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. No. 94-L-50357. Honorable Alexander P. White, Judge, Presiding.

The Honorable Justice Holdridge delivered the opinion of the court: McCULLOUGH, P.j., and Rakowski, Colwell, and Rarick, J.j., concurring.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Holdridge

JUSTICE HOLDRIDGE delivered the opinion of the court:

The claimants, Therese Bocian and John Bocian, surviving widow and son of Ralph Bocian, brought an action for death benefits under section 7 of the Workers' Compensation Act (the Act)(Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch 48, par. 138.1 et seq. now 820 ILCS 305/1 et seq. (Michie 1995)). The arbitrator found that Ralph, while employed by the Town of Cicero Fire Department (the employer), sustained accidental injuries which caused his death by suicide. The arbitrator awarded compensation to the claimants.

On review, the Illinois Industrial Commission (the Commission), with one dissent, determined that the claimants had failed to prove a causal connection between Ralph's work-related injuries and his subsequent suicide, and therefore denied claimants' claim for benefits. The circuit court of Cook County reversed and remanded the decision of the Commission, holding that the Commission's finding that claimants failed to establish a causal connection was against the manifest weight of the evidence. The employer appealed the order of the circuit court. We affirm.


The parties stipulated that Ralph, a 49 year old firefighter, committed suicide on May 21, 1990. The parties also stipulated that he sustained accidental injuries to his left arm arising out of and in the course of his employment on January 4, 1988. This injury caused a tear in the biceps muscle of the left arm. He returned to work on February 8, 1988, however, he continued to complain of numbness and tingling in his left arm even after he returned to work.

The parties further stipulated that Ralph sustained a second accidental injury arising out of and in the course of his employment on October 28, 1989. This injury caused a herniated disc in his neck and compression of the thecal sac, with obliteration of the nerve roots on the left side.

In April 1990, Ralph received a letter from the employer's workers' compensation insurance carrier informing him that the claim for the second injury was being denied and he should return to work. Ralph, however, never returned to work as a firefighter following the second injury.

Therese testified that Ralph had been a firefighter since 1965, had risen to the rank of lieutenant, and was in command of his own firehouse. He was a serious, "down to earth" person who always worried about having a job. She testified to several changes in Ralph following his accidents. Prior to his accidents he was a very active and outgoing individual who enjoyed his work as a firefighter and enjoyed the responsibility of his rank. He also enjoyed working with his hands, and for several years had operated a business on the side doing electrical work. After the accidents, Ralph, who was left-handed, complained of constant pain in his left arm and side. He appeared to Therese to be lifeless, moody and lacking in enthusiasm. He also appeared to her to be in constant pain. He complained that his physical therapy treatments were not helping. After the second accident, Ralph started drinking to the point where Therese considered him to be an alcoholic.

Therese further testified that after the second accident, Ralph would sit in a chair all day and complain of pain in his left arm and side. He was depressed because he could not find anything to relieve his pain. He was no longer able to hold anything in his left hand, and because he was left-handed, he was no longer able to work at his electrical business.

After the second accident, Ralph became very distraught over the family's financial future. He apologized to the family for "ruining their lives," and told them that they would be better off with him out of their lives, that he was bringing nothing but pain to them because of his injury. He became convinced that he "was going to loose his job," and "they would not have any money." Therese testified that Ralph discussed death with her three or four times in the few weeks preceding his suicide. He had never mentioned suicide in her presence on any previous occasion.

Although Ralph was receiving full-salary, he would only continue to do so for one year after the accident. In January 1990, he was notified by the employer's workers compensation insurance carrier that its examining physician had determined he was capable of returning to work. Ralph believed however that he would be physically unable to return to work due to the constant pain in his neck, shoulder and left arm. Therese testified that Ralph was afraid of loosing his job for disobeying an order to return to work.

The record indicates that in March 1990, Ralph filled out a disability pension application. He did not submit the application to the employer as he was waiting for a letter from his treating physician, Dr. John Shea. Ralph anticipated that the letter from Dr. Shea would indicate that he was disabled and could not perform the duties of a firefighter. His plan, according to Therese, was to submit the letter along with the application. When Ralph received Dr. Shea's letter he became distraught, as it did not contain a statement that he was unable to perform the duties of a firefighter due to a disability. The letter merely stated that Ralph was currently unable to work and suggested that he undergo further tests to determine his future ability to work.

Other witnesses testified from personal knowledge that Ralph was extremely distraught when he received the letter from Dr. Shea. Ralph expressed to them his belief that the letter meant the financial ruin of his family.

In spite of Ralph's apparent despair over his financial situation, the record indicates that Ralph could have retired from the fire department on his fiftieth birthday, March 9, 1991. He would have received a 50% pension upon retirement or a 65% pension if his retirement had been based upon disability.

Mark Steinhagen testified that he had worked with Ralph as a firefighter for approximately four years, and he had also assisted Ralph with his appliance repair business. He testified that Ralph enjoyed being a fireman and was looked up to as a "father, big brother, and mentor" by the other firefighters.

Steinhagen further testified that after the second accident, Ralph "was not himself." He complained of pain in his left arm and that he had no overhead mobility. He was unable, due to the pain in his left arm, to continue helping Steinhagen renovate an apartment building. He apologized for not being able to work, and became withdrawn, solemn and moody. Steinhagen testified that Ralph began to drink heavily after the second accident. Although Ralph and Steinhagen had been constant companions prior to the second accident, afterward Ralph seemed to be avoiding him. Steinhagen was asked if he had ever heard Ralph discuss suicide. He responded, "I think he mentioned it once." The record does not indicate whether this one mention of suicide occurred before or after Ralph's injuries.

Dennis Raleigh, a neighbor, friend and co-worker of Ralph's, testified that he knew Ralph since 1972. Raleigh described Ralph as having mood swings. At times he would be explosive and easily prone to displays of anger and rage. At other times, according to Raleigh, he "was the nicest person in the world." Raleigh believed that Ralph always had a "negative attitude" that never changed even after his injuries. When asked if he noticed any personality changes after the injuries, Raleigh stated that "Ralph was Ralph all the time I knew him from 1972 until his death."

Raleigh also testified that Ralph had spoken to him of suicide several times "through the years." On direct examination, Raleigh testified:

"Q. Before his death did he ever discuss with you him wanting to commit suicide?

A. Through all the years I knew him a lot of times he would make the statement that if I had a gun I would shoot myself. I never had any concern for those thoughts because he used the words if I had a gun I'd shoot myself. It never dawned that he would do anything of that nature."

Raleigh testified that these discussions occurred when they were discussing firehouse matters or people, subjects that easily excited Ralph. Upon ...

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