Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Survivors of State Patrolman who committed suicide 3 years ago after learning that he had stopped and then inadvertently allowed the Norfolk bank robbers to go free argue to the Nebraska Court of Appeals that the suicide was the result of a compensable "occupational disease" under the Nebraska Worker Compensation law; is this what they mean by "hard cases=bad law?" The survivors of a Nebraska State trooper who killed himself deserve state worker compensation benefits because his death was prompted by a job-related "occupational disease," an attorney told the Nebraska Court of Appeals on Tuesday. Nebraska State Patrol trooper Mark Zach, shown in an August 2002 photo, committed suicide on Sept. 27, 2002, just outside of Norfolk, Neb. Trooper Mark Zach shot himself a day after five people were killed inside a U.S. Bank branch in Norfolk in 2002. He died with the apparent belief that he could have prevented the slayings. Two weeks before the bank shootings, Zach had stopped a car that held two of the men who later committed the bank slayings. Due to a miscommunication in checking the serial number on a stolen gun found with one of the men, no one was arrested for possession of a stolen weapon. Zach, 35, learned of the mistake just prior to taking his own life. He left seven surviving children, a wife and an ex-wife. His survivors' request for state workers' compensation benefits was initially rejected by a State Workers' Compensation Court judge, but that ruling was reversed by a three-judge panel from that court. On Tuesday, the State Court of Appeals, sitting in Omaha, heard oral arguments. Terry Anderson, who represented the Zach family, said a key issue in the case is whether mental stress alone is sufficient to qualify for coverage. The Nebraska Attorney General's Office, which represented the state, argued that evidence of a physical injury prior to a suicide must be shown to obtain workers' compensation coverage. Zach failed to show such a physical injury, the state argued. The state also argued, in a brief, that stress is common in a wide array of occupations, and not unique to law enforcement. Anderson said that if a trial on the issues is ordered, he has several medical experts who will testify that Zach's brain underwent a physical change due to the stress caused by learning about the mistake. Anderson, who is a law professor at Creighton University, said he also is arguing that the extreme stress experienced by Zach caused an "occupational disease" that led to the suicide. Several other states, the attorney said, recognize such diseases in allowing worker benefits. The State Appeals Court can either order a trial on the issues in the Workers Compensation Court, or dismiss the case. Either order could be appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court.

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