Vick v. Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, Inc
U.S. Department of Labor
Case No.: 2009-LHC-00321
OWCP No.: 05-127613
Carolyn A. Vick (widow of Allen Vick)
Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, Inc. and Director, Office of Workers'
Plaintiff Attorney: W. Mark Broadwell, Esq.
Defense Attorney: Jonathan Walker, Esq.
Dr. Bursztajn was retained by the defense to conduct a forensic neuropsychiatric
autopsy on Allen D. Vick, an employee of Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding,
Inc., who committed suicide by hanging at his home. At issue was whether
Mr. Vick's onset of major depression was the result, in whole or in part,
of cumulative exposure to workplace stressors and if this mental illness
would have occurred when it did and to the same degree regardless of
his occupation or the degree of stress he encountered in that job; did
workplace stressors aggravate a pre-existing major depressive disorder;
and was his suicide the result of volitional insanity. Dr. Bursztajn
prepared a report analyzing the above considerations and a second rebuttal
report pointing out inconsistencies and methodological inaccuracies in
the report of the plaintiff's psychiatric expert.
The judge found for the defense, there was no appeal.
Excerpts from the judge's decision:
Dr. Bursztajn, who is board-certified in clinical and forensic psychiatry
and neurology, conducted a record review on behalf of the Employer and
prepared two reports, one a forensic neuropsychiatric opinion and one
a response to Dr. Gold's report.
Dr. Bursztajn based his opinions on Mr. Vick's family history which made
him a high risk for depressive disorders, reports of significant stressors
outside of work in 2003 (mother's illness, financial issues, daughter's
education), the absence of psychotic features, his perfectionist nature,
his repeated suicidal ideation and previous suicide attempts, the possibility
that ECT's over a span of time damaged his neurologic makeup, the instability
of his "psychopharmacological environment," and possible role
of alcohol in his suicide.
Dr. Bursztajn also concluded that the record was "consistent with
Mr. Vick's having purposefully planned, deliberated, and carried out
the taking of his own life of his own volition."
Dr. Bursztajn opined that Dr. Brooks' opinion on whether work-related
stress contributed to Mr. Vick's illness and whether his suicide was
a volitional act are "necessarily unreliable for forensic purposes." He
stated that it was generally accepted that a treating psychiatrist could
not offer "forensically reliable" opinions on their own patients.
He also noted that Dr. Brooks' letters concerning Mr. Vick's suicide
to not indicate that he conducted a forensic evaluation to reach his
Dr. Bursztajn [found] that Mr. Vick's depression was not the result of "cumulative
exposure to workplace stressors" and that he was at a "high
risk relative to the general population" for developing a major
depressive disorder. Dr. Bursztajn wrote that Mr. Vick's depression would
have occurred approximately when it did regardless of his occupation
or the degree of stress he encountered in the job. He also opined that
work-related stress did not aggravate "a pre-existing major depressive
disorder or the major depressive disorder after diagnosis." He explained
that "Mr. Vick's work situation as part of the overall life situation
with which he coped in an increasingly impaired manner during the clinically
foreseeable worsening course of his major depressive disorder." He
noted that the available data did not support a hypothesis that work-related
stress caused or exacerbated Mr. Vick's depression because there was
not specific event of a hostile or injurious nature; Mr. Vick did not
display avoidance behavior, as would be expected from a person traumatized
by the workplace; no hostile work environment was shown; and reasonable
accommodations were made for his disabilities.
I find that the foregoing doctors' opinions are sufficient to rebut the
presumption that Mr. Vick's depression was caused, at least in part,
by work-related stress.
Dr. Gold opined, based on the reports of Mr. Martin and Dr. Brooks, that
Mr. Vick's depression was caused by or contributed to, at least in part,
by his work. However, as noted by Dr. Bursztajn, Dr. Gold failed to discuss
the contribution of Mr. Vick's biological predisposition towards depression.
The other doctors of record found this contribution to be very significant
and, therefore, I find it appropriate to accord less weight to Dr. Gold's
opinion for failing to consider the effect of Mr. Vick's family history
on his illness.
...Dr. Bursztajn also opined that work-related stress did not aggravate
Mr. Vick's depression. ...Dr. Bursztajn noted that Mr. Vick seemed to
gain some relief from his depression when he was able to return to work
and did not display avoidance behavior, "as would be expected from
a person traumatized by the workplace." Finally, ...Dr. Bursztajn
opined that Mr. Vick's depression would have occurred regardless of his
occupation or the degree of work-related stress he was exposed to.
I find the opinions of ... Dr. Bursztajn to be the most well-reasoned
and documented opinions in the records. Therefore, I find that the preponderance
of the evidence supports a finding that Mr. Vick's depression was not
triggered or aggravated by his work-place stress, but by a genetic predisposition
that then caused him to feel overwhelmed by his work duties.
... Dr. Gold also opined that "Mr. Vick's irrational thinking and
near delusional, if not delusional, depression, is also indicated by
Dr. Brooks' escalating prescriptions of antipsychotic medication in March
and April 2008."
Dr. Bursztajn criticized Dr. Gold's report. ... Dr. Bursztajn wrote that "Dr.
Brooks makes clear that antipsychotics were not prescribed for symptoms
of psychosis." Dr. Bursztajn stated that "in claiming that
the absence of a suicide note indicates impulsivity, Dr. Gold commits
the methodological fallacy of ignoring the base rate; i.e., most people
who commit suicide do not leave a note."
Dr. Bursztajn opined that Mr. Vick's suicide was not the result of an
irresistible impulse because he was capable of making a choice whether
to end his life. Dr. Bursztajn concluded that the record was "consistent
with Mr. Vick's having purposefully planned, deliberated, and carried
out the taking of his own life of his own volition."