Safety and OSHA News

Positive drug test wasn’t cause of injury: What happens to workers’ comp?

After suffering a workplace injury, an employee tested positive for marijuana. The company admits drug use wasn’t the cause of the injury. Can the company deny workers’ comp to the employee? 

James Cordell was injured when working for Pallet Companies Inc. in Ohio. Cordell was operating a tow motor on a loading dock when the truck he was servicing moved away from the dock unexpectedly. He jumped from the tow motor to the dock plate, but then fell five to six feet from the plate when the truck moved again.

Cordell landed between the dock and the truck, fracturing his right fibula and tibia (leg bones). A urine sample collected at the hospital tested positive for marijuana.

Pallet maintained a drug-free workplace policy that prohibited use of illegal substances “at any time whether on or off duty.” A violation was a terminable offense.

The company fired Cordell because he failed a post-accident drug screen. Pallet concedes Cordell’s drug use didn’t cause his injury.

At first, the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation allowed Cordell’s claim for medical benefits and temporary total disability compensation. Pallet appealed, and a hearing officer determined Cordell was eligible for the medical benefits but not for TTD compensation because he’d been fired for a pre-injury violation of workplace policy.

Cordell appealed. A staff hearing officer reversed the decision on the TTD compensation. Pallet appealed.

The Ohio Industrial Commission agreed with Pallet, deciding Cordell had “voluntarily abandoned his employment” by using marijuana “prior to termination” and “prior to the industrial injury.” Cordell took his case to a state appeals court.

The back-and-forth decisions continued as this court decided Cordell should receive his TTD benefits as well.

The company appealed. This case may now have reached the end of the line with a recent decision by the Ohio Supreme Court.

Did he ‘voluntarily abandon employment?’

The state’s highest court previously ruled that when a worker leaves a job and the departure wasn’t due to a work-related injury, the worker has voluntarily abandoned the workplace and TTD benefits can be denied.

Pallet claims that by violating its drug-free workplace policy, Cordell voluntarily abandoned his job.

According to the court, “The underlying issue in a voluntary-abandonment case is whether the injury or the termination is the cause of the loss of earnings.”

In this case, the court found:

“When Cordell was terminated by Pallet, he had not returned to work, he had not been released by his doctor to return to work, he had not reached maximum medical improvement, and he was physically incapable of returning to work … [under Ohio law], Cordell was entitled to TTD benefits.

“Denial of statutory TTD benefits to an injured employee who was fired after an injury for conduct that occurred prior to the injury would encourage employers to investigate injured employees’ pre-injury conduct for any dischargeable offenses.”

As a result, Cordell will receive medical and TTD benefits for his workplace injury.

What do you think about the court’s ruling? Let us know in the comments.

(Cordell v. Pallet Companies Inc., Supreme Court of Ohio, No. 2016-Ohio-8446, 12/29/16)

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