Safety and OSHA News

No one saw fatal incident: Was worker’s pot use to blame for his death?

An employee working alone on the night shift was found seriously wounded and died. A post-injury drug test showed marijuana present in his system. Will the drug test negate workers’ comp death benefits for his family?

Joseph Boudreaux worked in a Georgia Pacific warehouse in Port Hudson, LA. On Aug. 31, 2013, Boudreaux was working alone, using a lift truck to load material onto trailers.

He was found unresponsive near his lift truck and was transported to an ER where he was pronounced dead.

The coroner concluded Boudreaux’s fatal injuries were possibly caused by pinch points between the end of a loading dock and the back of a trailer. He died of blunt force injuries to his chest and head.

Boudreaux’s two children filed for workers’ comp death benefits, but Georgia Pacific denied the claim because blood and urine samples taken soon after his death yielded positive results for marijuana.

Louisiana’s workers’ comp law prohibits benefits for injuries caused by an injured employee’s intoxication. The employer has the burden of proofing the worker was intoxicated at the time of the injury. Once the employer has met that burden, it’s presumed the employee’s injury was caused by his intoxication.

The burden then shifts to the employee (or his family) to show that intoxication wasn’t a contributing cause of the injury.

Boudreaux’s children sued to obtain the death benefits. The company asked for summary judgment – throwing out the lawsuit.

A workers’ compensation judge (WCJ) granted summary judgment in favor of Georgia Pacific. Boudreaux’s children took their case to the Court of Appeals of Louisiana.

The court noted that co-workers testified Boudreaux was alert and didn’t appear to be impaired on the day he died.

The workers also testified this type of “freak accident” could have happened to anyone who drove lift trucks, impaired or not, due to the pinch points created by the difference in levels of the loading dock and trailers.

The appeals court said these statements from his co-workers “created a genuine issue of material fact” that should be decided by a trial court. For that reason, the appeals court ruled the WCJ had erred in granting summary judgment to Georgia Pacific.

In effect, the court was saying that Boudreaux’s children, under state law, should be given their day in court to attempt to prove that the presence of marijuana metabolites in his system didn’t prove that he was intoxicated and impaired on the day of his death or that his marijuana use was the cause of his death.

The court remanded the case for further proceedings.

The take-home in this case: The law creates the presumption that an injured employee with a positive drug test was intoxicated at the time of the injury, and that intoxication was the cause of the injury. However, the employee (or his family) can still rebut that presumption in court. Ultimately, if intoxication wasn’t the cause of the injury, the employee can still receive workers’ comp benefits.

(Leon Joseph and Hannah Boudreaux v. Georgia Pacific LLC and ESIS, Court of Appeals of LA, First Circuit, No. 2015 CA 0227, 9/18/15)

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Comments

  1. going1234 says:

    Boudreaux was working alone, using a lift truck to load material onto trailers.
    The court made some assumptions from people that seen him at the beginning of his shift, not after everyone left.
    I guess they have not heard of dock plates at this warehouse, they are used to compensate for the difference.
    Makes you wonder how many of these freak accidents happen each year for the judge to rule the way he did.

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