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Two Recent Decisions Highlight The Impact Of Drugs On A Work Comp Claim

While reading a work comp journal this week, I noticed two cases involving the impact of intoxication on work comp claims. Neither case was from Alabama. The two cases reached opposite results. In one, the worker lost his claim and benefits were denied. In the other, the court awarded compensation benefits.

I’ve written previously about the impact of drug and alcohol impairment on Alabama workers’ compensation claims. I’ve also written about the impact of impairment on commercial truck accidents — But that’s another issue.

Most states have provisions in their work comp laws barring claims if the worker’s intoxication or impairment caused the accident. In lawyer terms, the question is usually whether or not the intoxication was the proximate cause of the accident. Every state has unique workers’ compensation laws. So, these provisions can vary from state-to-state.

A Pair Of Decisions (From Other States) Highlight The Impairment Issue And Accident Causation

I won’t discuss the two decisions in detail because they involve laws that differ slightly from Alabama. But, both warrant a brief discussion.

The first case involved an accident in Mississippi. In that case, a construction worker tripped and fell from a beam. He struck a man-lift on the way down. He suffered multiple injuries to his shoulder, hip and back. A test at the hospital revealed he had marijuana in his system. Eventually, his case was dismissed due to his intoxication. He lost his claim for workers’ compensation benefits.

The second case involved an accident in Alaska. In that case, the worker was repairing a roof. While working, the structure supporting his ladder gave way. He fell. The worker admitted he used cocaine and alcohol on the job. A post-accident drug test was positive for both substances. After looking at all the evidence, the court held the loose structure would have caused anyone to fall regardless of impairment. Thus, the worker’s impairment from drugs and alcohol did not cause his fall. The court awarded benefits to him.

Again, I’ve been really brief with these cases. Each of these states has unique work comp laws. In Mississippi, the law provides a presumption of proximate cause. So, I’m skipping the legal analysis. Instead, I’m just highlighting the cases to show how these decisions can differ based on key facts and law relating to how impairment contributed (or not) to causing the accident.

Changing Marijuana Laws Will Impact Workers’ Compensation Claims

Both alcohol and marijuana impairment can lead to the denial of a work comp claim. Yet, there are key differences. Alcohol impairment is easily detectable. Alcohol tests provide a good picture of “current” impairment. Marijuana is different. A positive test for the presence of marijuana may not mean an immediate impairment. So, issues of actual impairment and causation can get really cloudy.

Add to the difficulty that many states have (to some degree) legalized marijuana use. The presence of marijuana in a worker’s bloodstream no longer means the worker engaged in illegal drug use. So, you have a permissible / legal use. You then couple that with testing that is often unclear on current impairment. Because of these issues, I think we will see more cases examining accidents involving an issue of marijuana.

Alabama Workers Compensation Claims And Proximate Cause Of Impairment

I’ve dealt with impairment issues in Alabama claims on several occasions. As a young lawyer, I represented a roofer who suffered a horrible injury when a roof collapsed in Jackson County. The worker and his crew were repairing a specific spot on the roof at a local plant. They were high off the ground. (I know they were high off the ground because I later inspected the roof with my expert. You had great views of the Tennessee River and surrounding hills!). What happened? The local plant told the crew a single spot needed repair but the rest of the roof was fine. That was not true. Instead, pieces of the ceiling had been falling inside the plant for months. The entire roof was structurally weak. When the crew walked across the roof to the “bad spot,” the roof collapsed. My client fell about 30 feet. He suffered such severe injuries, he spent the rest of his life confined to a wheelchair.

At first glance, you may think the case was easy. My client had a workers’ compensation claim agains the roofing company for his disability. And, he had a third-party negligence case against the local plant. But, he had one big problem — Intoxication. Several members of the roofing crew were drinking to, and on, the job. He was intoxicated. We fought the case in court in Scottsboro and won benefits for him. How? We argued his intoxication had nothing to do with the roof collapsing underneath him.

I’ll give you a second example. Several years later, I had a work comp case in Huntsville where we tried the issue of impairment. My client was a maintenance worker at a local plant. He severely injured his back lifting a heavy piece of equipment. The accident happened on a Monday. He reported it. On Wednesday, the company sent him for a drug test. The results were positive for marijuana. Was he impaired on Monday at the time of the accident? My client admitted the drug use but testified it occurred on Tuesday, a day after the accident. And, we had two co-worker witnesses who saw the actual accident and testified the worker did not appear impaired. The case was highly contested. The trial court in Huntsville had a big decision to make concerning witness credibility. Thankfully, we were able to win at trial. Our client received full benefits for his permanent and total disability.

These impairment cases are significant and difficult. As I’ve mentioned, the perception of marijuana use has evolved since I started practicing law over 25 years ago. When I started practicing law, the mere indication of marijuana use was enough for most judges to deny your claim. Now, courts look a little deeper into the facts.

The key issue surrounds proximate cause. Was the impairment a cause of the accident? Did impairment contribute to events? These are issues determined on key, detailed facts. In coming years, I believe we will see more cases like the two out-of-state ones I cited in this post. Pain medications, marijuana and alcohol, are all so widespread in society. Because of that, trial courts will have to deal with these issues on a regular basis.

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We are Huntsville accident and injury lawyers representing seriously injured clients across Alabama. We have appeared in courtrooms statewide on behalf of our clients. In every case our goal is simple — We want to recover the maximum possible compensation for our injured clients.

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