The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled the death of a Washington County Sheriff’s deputy who suffered from job-related post-traumatic stress disorder and died by suicide falls under “killed in the line of duty” — and that his widow may continue to seek state benefits given to survivors.
Jerry Lannon took his life in November 2018 at age 58, following three decades in law enforcement. He’d been diagnosed with severe recurrent major depressive disorder with psychotic symptoms and PTSD.
His widow, Cindy Lannon, applied to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety for benefits given to survivors of public safety officers “killed in the line of duty,” contending her husband’s death was the result of his depression and PTSD caused by work-related events and stress.
DPS Commissioner John Harrington denied Cindy Lannon’s application, stating in a letter that “to be eligible for the full benefit, the death of a public safety officer must have occurred while acting in the course or scope of duties as a public safety officer.” He went on to say it did not appear as though that had been the case.
Lannon challenged Harrington’s decision. In March, an administrative law judge sided with the commissioner, writing that “PTSD and depression are not, themselves, fatal conditions and were not the immediate cause of Deputy Lannon’s death.”
But the appeals court backed Cindy Lannon, ruling Monday the administrative law judge erred when affirming Harrington’s decision. The three-judge panel concluded the meaning of the phrase “killed in the line of duty,” as used in the death-benefit statute, is “broad enough to encompass a death by suicide resulting from PTSD caused by performing the duties peculiar to a public safety officer.”
The statute is ambiguous, providing only a partial definition of “killed in the line of duty,” since it addresses deaths by “natural causes” and “accidental means,” but no other causes of death, the court wrote. For example, it does not address whether an officer who is shot and injured on the scene but later dies from an infection sustained after surgery is “killed in the line of duty.”
“We therefore conclude that Minn. Stat. 299A.44 is ambiguous as to the meaning of ‘killed in the line of duty,’ particularly as it applies to a death by suicide resulting from job-related PTSD,” the appellate court said in its decision.
Harrington said Tuesday in a statement his department continues to share its sympathies with Lannon’s family and take seriously the mental and emotional health of emergency responders and deaths resulting from PTSD.
“It is for this reason that we have spent the better part of 2022 researching the issues, existing laws, and our federal partners’ responses, as we work to propose modifications to Minnesota’s statutes,” Harrington said.
Last legislative session, he said, DPS proposed expanding the eligible circumstances for which families of first responders who die in the line of duty can receive death benefits to include cancer or post-traumatic stress disorder that is linked to their service.
The ruling does not immediately give Cindy Lannon the benefits. The DPS can contest the opinions of mental health experts and present evidence that “could support a differing view of the cause(s) of Deputy Lannon’s PTSD, depression, and death,” the appellate court said.
‘You never deal with it’
Lannon grew up in Burnsville, graduating from Burnsville High School in 1978. He got his associate’s degree in law enforcement from Normandale Community College. Before being hired by Washington County in 1999, he worked for 11 years as a police officer in the Iowa towns of Huxley, Colfax and Pleasant Hill.
In Washington County, he served as a patrol deputy, investigator, school resource officer, court security officer, firearms instructor and TASER instructor and was a member of the SWAT team. He received commendations for exceptional service in 2003 and 2008.
During his career, he “saw a lot of things that a person shouldn’t have to see,” Cindy Lannon told the Pioneer Press in 2019.
“You never deal with it,” she said. “You just hop back in your squad car after you cut somebody down from a rope or watch them burn up in a car, and you go home and eat dinner with your family and go to bed at night.”
In 2015, Jerry Lannon was diagnosed with anxiety and depression and in 2016 began counseling to address the disorders. At that time, his psychologist noted that he “could be suffering from PTSD related to his work,” though he was not formally diagnosed with PTSD, according to the appellate court.
In July 2018 Lannon threw out his back while lifting his granddaughter. He suffered nerve damage and numbness down his left leg, and was scheduled to start a medical leave on Sept. 21, 2018, when the couple was seriously injured in a head-on crash on Minnesota 244 in Mahtomedi. He went on medical leave.
After the crash, Lannon’s PTSD “went into overdrive,” Cindy Lannon told the Pioneer Press.
Jerry Lannon began seeing a new therapist, who in October 2018 recorded “an initial diagnostic impression of PTSD,” according to the appellate court. A month later the therapist noted Lannon “reported ongoing symptoms of depression including suicidal thoughts and thoughts of failure that had been present for several weeks.”
Two days later, Lannon’s supervisor brought him to a hospital because he was experiencing suicidal ideations. An emergency room doctor determined that Lannon was “extremely high risk to follow through with his suicide plan” and kept him in the emergency department overnight. He was diagnosed with severe recurrent major depressive disorder with psychotic symptoms and PTSD. The hospital then admitted him for inpatient psychiatric care.
Lannon was discharged from the hospital on Nov. 21, and two days later a therapist noted after another session “ongoing symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depressed mood.”
Lannon died by suicide on Nov. 26, 2018. His death certificate lists depression and PTSD as contributing conditions to his death. At the time, he was still employed by the Washington County sheriff’s office, which on Tuesday did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the court’s ruling.
Cindy Lannon said Tuesday in a statement issued through her attorney that she was relieved when the court released its decision. “It made all of the effort and work the last four years worth it,” she said. “I hope this is an important step in recognizing the sacrifices officers and their families make and that it will help other families in the future.”
Suicide prevention information
- If you need help: If you are in crisis, call 988 or text “Hello” to 741-741 for free, 24/7 support from the Crisis Text Line. Or, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
- If you want to help: Five steps to help others as well as yourself at Take5tosavelives.org.
- Please stay: Read survivor stories at Livethroughthis.org: “Our stories can save lives. You are not alone. Please stay.”
- Local resources: More local resources at Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) at Save.org.