Neb. Insurers Argue Againsts Benefits for State Trooper in Suicide Case

Family members of a state trooper who killed himself after the 2002 Norfolk bank slayings face another court battle in their fight for workers’ compensation benefits they say they are owed.

Several large insurers and businesses argue benefits shouldn’t be paid, saying that what may have led to Trooper Mark Zach’s suicide happens everyday to countless employees: He made a mistake at work.

“Learning of his mistake affected him mentally … It is only a matter of degree which separates the facts surrounding officer Zach’s situation and untold employees across the state,” according to a brief filed by the group in Nebraska Supreme Court to support the state’s case against giving compensation.

The group of employers is worried that a decision in favor of the family would hurt their bottom lines by expanding the state’s workers’ compensation law to include new types of injury claims.

Zach committed suicide the day after five people were shot to death inside a Norfolk bank in September 2002.

He apparently was distraught because he had ticketed one of the four men involved in the slayings, Erick Vela, for carrying a concealed weapon about a week before the killings.

But Zach accidentally transposed a serial number during a check of the gun, so it was not registered as stolen.

Vela was not arrested and was allowed to keep the gun.

Attorneys for the family have argued workers’ compensation benefits are owed because Zach’s death stemmed from a job-related occupational disease caused by the stress of learning of the mistake.

The state has argued that a physical injury suffered before a suicide must be proved to merit workers’ compensation coverage.

The family’s initial request for benefits was denied by a state Workers’ Compensation Court judge, but the decision was reversed by a three-judge panel from the same court, and the Nebraska Court of Appeals upheld the panel’s decision.

That court’s decision was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments early next month.

“There can be no doubt that mental dysfunction is clear evidence of violence or harm to the body,” Jeffry Patterson, an attorney for the Zach family, argues in a brief filed with the state high court.

But the group of businesses and insurance companies, which includes trucking companies Crete Carrier and Werner Enterprises, disagrees.

It is poor public policy to consider claims valid “by merely asserting (employees) suffer from a mental condition as a result of a job-related stimulus,” according to the brief filed by Lincoln attorney Jenny Panko.