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Spain: The High Court of Justice of Cantabria recognizes the suicide of an employee, which occurred outside the company and outside working hours, as a work-related accident

The High Court of Justice of Cantabria ordered the Social Security Institute and a company’s mutual insurance company to pay widow’s and orphan’s pensions arising from an occupational contingency to a woman and her daughter for the father’s suicide. Although the event occurred outside the company, the judges consider that it was linked to his work.

The ruling explains that, although it is true that the presumption of work-relatedness of an accident ceases with an act of suicide (due to the voluntary nature of the act of taking one’s own life), it is no less true that suicide is sometimes caused by a situation of stress or mental disorder that can derive both from work-related factors and from factors unrelated to work.

Therefore, what is relevant to establish whether an accident is common or professional is the connection between the event that triggers the death and the work, and in this case the Court considers that, although the suicide took place outside the workplace and outside working hours, there was a causal relationship with the work.

There is no record of any previous psychiatric history or psychiatric pathologies, but there was nevertheless an important work-related problem that led him to take the decision to take his own life. It was a suicide that took place out of time and outside the workplace but was directly linked to his work, as he had been accused of harassment at work, his company had sanctioned him with suspension of employment and transfer to another centre and, furthermore, it was foreseeable that the colleague who had suffered the harassment would file an individual criminal complaint against him. It is also very relevant that three days before the suicide he was due to join the new workplace away from his place of residence. Therefore, according to the magistrates, all these aspects had an impact on his state of mind and the subsequent decision to end his life.

It appears that the employee had marital problems, but they were not sufficient to put an end to the relationship between the spouses, as it is established that, despite the facts imputed to the employee, his partner did not even want to put an end to the relationship, so this family problem does not imply a break in the causal link; on the contrary, the Chamber understands that it was the work problems that interfered with his family life and not the other way round.

In short, case law has been restrictively admitting the act of suicide as an occupational accident, but the causal link must be analysed. And despite the fact that the suicide occurred when the employee was on holiday (which means that the presumption of employment is not applicable), the link is clear: the employment problem has a clear temporal connection with the suicidal act, as it began barely three months before the fatal outcome and was very present in the days prior to the decision to take his own life, for two fundamental reasons: because of concern about the possible criminal consequences of a possible harassment complaint (one day before the suicide, he sought information on the internet about the penalties imposed for harassment at work) and because of the sanction of moving to a different shop, away from the place where his closest family lives, which was also adopted as a result of the harassment complaint.

For all of the above reasons, the Court, taking into account the temporal sequence of the events and their employment-related connotations, upheld the appeal and declared that the widow’s and orphan’s pensions derived from the death were due to the occupational contingency of an accident at work and that the amounts should be increased.

Key action point

This ruling, although it is not the only one that has been pronounced recognising a suicide as an accident at work, is relevant, because until the 1960s in Spain, suicide was automatically dismissed as an accident at work and, since then, there have been very few rulings that have recognised a suicide as an accident at work.

This ruling is particularly remarkable, as the cause of the accident is that the employee was involved in a labour procedure in which he was the harasser, and the company had taken the necessary measures in relation to the harassment, measures which, according to the court, were the cause of the employee’s suicide, but which, legally speaking, were the measures to be taken by the company in a case of harassment such as the one that occurred.

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