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Did taking prescription meds prevent injured employee from getting workers’ comp?

A worker had to have his finger amputated after his hand was crushed in a machine. A post-injury drug test showed he had meds in his system that he didn’t have prescriptions for. 

Did a court rule he should get workers’ comp benefits?

James Austin worked for Roach Sawmill & Lumber Co. in Tennessee. For 12 years, he operated a hydraulic log turner. The computer-controlled machine has an operator cab and three extensions known as turners that place logs into proper position before being sawed. The operator controls the turners from the cab by entering codes into a computer panel. The panel is the only means to operate the turners.

On June 27, 2013, Austin was preparing the machine at the beginning of a shift. Austin says as he removed a protective block from under the first turner, it descended and pinned his hand in the machine. It took several minutes for another employee to release his hand.

Austin’s right ring finger had to be amputated. He was able to return to work about two months after the injury. A doctor assigned a 13% permanent impairment to his arm.

On the morning of his injury, hospital personnel administered a post-injury urine drug test to Austin. Lab results showed the presence of medications not prescribed to Austin: amphetamine, nordiazepam, oxazepam, temazepam and alpha-hydroxyalprzolam.

The sawmill operated as a drug-free workplace under Tennessee law. The company’s insurance carrier denied Austin’s workers’ comp claim.

Austin says he only took two medications he wasn’t prescribed: one Xanax two days before his injury, and one Adderall one day before his injury.

The worker denied his ability to perform his job was impaired. Austin had a theory on what happened that day. He says a wiring malfunction must have caused the turner to lower.

Sawmill owner Mark Roach conducted an investigation into what happened with the turner. He testified that the turners wouldn’t lower if the operator entered the correct code. Roach concluded no short circuit existed with the machine. The turner continued to operate without problem after Austin’s injury.

Austin appealed the denial of workers’ comp benefits.

At trial, a board-certified medical toxicologist testified:

  • The amphetamine found in Austin’s urine was likely from Adderall taken the day before the injury. The amount was consistent with Austin’s explanation, and it was unlikely it affected Austin when he was injured.
  • Austin took either nordiazepam or a similar drug and Xanax which impacted his cognitive and executive ability as well as his reaction time.
  • The drugs found in his system could affect his ability to input the correct codes on the machine panel.
  • As to oxazepam, the toxicologist said if Austin hadn’t taken any in a day, he had taken a “boatload” earlier because there was still a lot of it in his system at the time of the drug test.

The trial court found Austin failed to show that his injury was caused by something other than his drug use. Austin has appealed that decision. A special workers’ comp appeals panel appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court heard the case.

Nothing but his own testimony

Austin offered nothing other than his own testimony to show that a machine malfunction, not his drug use, caused his injury. He claims his testimony established that his injury was the result of a mechanical or electrical malfunction.

But the court noted that the company owner said if an incorrect code was entered into the machine, it would be possible for the turner to raise and lower automatically.

Austin also claimed he wasn’t impaired on the morning of his injury. But that claim was directly refuted by the testimony of an expert medical witness. The levels of prescription drugs in his system were sufficient to negatively affect his cognition, executive function and reaction time.

For those reasons, the special appeal panel affirmed the trial court’s decision. Austin would not get comp for his work injury because he wasn’t able to show his drug use wasn’t the direct cause of the injury.

(James Austin v. Roach Sawmill & Lumber Co., Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel, No. W2015-02225-SC-WCM-WC, 10/26/16)

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