On April 17, 2009, the Appellate Division decided Tracey Wilde v. Township of Cranford, Docket No.: A-3391-07T2. In the case, the Workers’ Compensation Court awarded dependency benefits to petitioner, Tracey Wilde (“Tracey”) and her two children. On appeal, the Township of Cranford contended the court erred in finding that petitioner’s husband, Russell Scott Wilde, Sr., (“Wilde”) suffered a stress-induced occupational suicide which was compensable.
Wilde joined the Cranford Police Department in 1985. He was promoted to detective in 1990, sergeant in 1994, and lieutenant in 1999. As lieutenant, Wilde was responsible for supervising approximately fifteen patrolmen and two sergeants. During the course of his fourteen-year career, Wilde received numerous awards for professionalism and heroism.
On September 16, 1999, when Hurricane Floyd struck, Wilde was designated Incident Commander and he was put in charge of coordinating the Township’s rescue and recovery efforts. From September 16, 1999 to September 18, 1999, Wilde worked approximately 38 hours in a 51 hour period.
Tracey testified that her husband did not come home from work on September 16, 1999. When she visited him at the police station on September 17, 1999, she stated he was the only one “with his heavy rain gear on” even though the sun was out. She also testified that her husband was “wired” when he arrived home on that Friday evening, he could not “settle down,” and he did “not really” sleep “much” that night. Thereafter, Wilde left for work at approximately 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. Saturday morning and did not return home until approximately 6:00 p.m.
Later that evening, Tracey and Wilde attended a fellow police officer’s wedding. Tracey testified that her husband looked “very tired” so she drove to the wedding. During the reception, Tracey did not note anything unusual in his behavior. Before leaving the wedding, Wilde spoke to his father, Harry Wilde, who was Chief of Police for the Township. After Wilde spoke with his father, Tracey testified he “seemed more wired again and more…on edge and worrying about the next day, and what…his duties were going to be.”
As Tracey drive home, Wilde appeared tired, and he was talking about the next day. Tracey testified that Wilde appeared to be worried about what was going to happen the next day, which was unusual because he was not a “worrier.” After arriving home, Tracey and Wilde went to their bedroom, wherein Wilde was discussing what happened at work and stating he was “very exhausted.” Tracey further testified that although her husband was not a religious person, he stated “you have to be so thankful for God. You must have an angel looking over you….You know how lucky we are. We had an angel looking over us.” According to Tracey, her husband “never talked like that before,” and it was “very strange.”
Tracey explained that during this time, she was walking back and forth from the bedroom, which was across the hall. As she came back into the bedroom, she saw her husband reach high up on a dresser where he kept his gun. She testified:
“I figured, well, he must be reaching for it or putting it away or something and he said if you saw what I saw, you would want to die, and I just remember standing there looking and I heard a loud noise and then I don’t even remember, but he was on the ground; that’s all I remember, just him.
Tracey telephoned 911 and the police arrived shortly thereafter. Wilde was transported by helicopter to the trauma center at University Hospital in Newark. He died from a gunshot wound to the head at 12:04 a.m., Sunday, September 19, 1999.
On December 17, 1999, Tracey filed a dependency claim petition with the Division of Workers’ Compensation alleging that her husband’s death was the result of a stress-induced occupational suicide.
After considering the Township’s arguments in light of the record and applicable law, the Appellate Division affirmed the determination of the Workers’ Compensation Court. Specifically, the Court was satisfied that there was sufficient, credible evidence in the record to support the court’s determination that Wilde’s work during Hurricane Floyd “led to a loss of normal rational judgment that resulted in his suicide.”
Specifically, the Court found Tracey’s testimony about Wilde’s change in behavior credible, noting that immediately before shooting himself, Wilde said to her, “if you saw what I saw, you would want to die.” Further, the Court found the expert testimony persuasive that there was a casual connection between work and Wilde’s suicide.