Deputy Who Committed Suicide Determined to be “Killed in the Line of Duty”

In Minnesota, surviving spouses and children of law enforcement officers “killed in the line of duty” are provided a death benefit of $100,000 after a determination is made that the death was, in fact, in the line of duty.  The Minnesota Legislature determined a long time ago that those officers who put their lives on the line for the protection of the public are entitled to an additional benefit if they pass away in the performance of their duties.

In the recent case of In re Lannon, the phrase “killed in the line of duty” was put to the test by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, when the spouse of Washington County Deputy Jerome Lannon filed for survivor benefits following her husband’s suicide, which was denied by the Department of Public Safety (“DPS”).

Prior to his death, Deputy Lannon began experiencing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) during his time as a Washington County Deputy, and eventually took his own life following a serious off-duty car accident.  After the denial, the matter was heard by an Administrative Law Judge, who issued an order granting the DPS motion for summary disposition and dismissed the challenge, finding that the deputy was not killed in the line of duty.  The spouse appealed, alleging that the deputy’s duty-related PTSD led to his suicide.

At the start of its decision, the Court of Appeals found the definition of the phrase “killed in the line of duty,” as used in the statute, to be ambiguous.  It found this ambiguity based on the statute’s lack of articulating every situation in which an officer might die in the line of duty, including officer suicide following a diagnosis of job-related PTSD.  It cited language from a 1986 Minnesota Supreme Court decision which states “killed in the line of duty” includes “death resulting from the performance of those duties peculiar to a peace officer that expose the officer to the hazard of being killed.” It also cited another decision which stated that “killed in the line of duty” includes a death that results from a health condition caused, in part, by the performance of the duties peculiar to a public safety officer.

Based on these two definitions, the court held that the Minnesota Supreme Court’s definition of “killed in the line of duty” was broad enough to “encompass a death by suicide resulting from PTSD caused by performing duties peculiar to a public safety officer.”  The court held that a death by suicide may satisfy the “line of duty” standard “if the officer sustained a mental injury such as PTSD as a result of traumatic events experienced while performing duties peculiar to a public safety officer.”

Having found that the statute covers PTSD-related suicide, the court found that the deputy’s spouse may have been entitled to benefits based on the facts of the case, and sent the case back for re-hearing.

Due to the court of appeals’s reliance on Minnesota Supreme Court precedent, this is likely not the last we’ll hear with regard to this decision.  While the court couched the basis for its decision in precedent, it seemed to expand the reasoning of the Supreme Court beyond what it allowed for in past decisions.

Nonetheless, this is a significant decision that reinforces the need for quality mental health care for public safety employees.  Many occupations in the public safety field expose employees to traumatic situations that need to be properly dealt with immediately.  It is important to have programs in place to assist employees when they experience traumatic events, and get employees the help they need.  If you, or your organization, need assistance in making your organization safer for employees, whether through employee handbook or collective bargaining, contact Wiley Reber Law, for legal advice that works.