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Re-injured worker tests positive for pot: Comp benefits suspended?

A company had a drug-free workplace policy so its heavy machinery was used safely. An employee suffered an injury, and his drug test turned up positive for marijuana. Could the company suspend his workers’ comp benefits because of the positive drug test?

Joseph Lineman was a forklift operator for Marjam Supply Co. in Pennsylvania. He suffered a work-related sprain/strain of his lumbar spine while lifting and carrying a pipe. Marjam accepted liability for the injury.

Lineman returned to work a month later, but within a week his back injury recurred. After the re-injury, Marjam asked Lineman to undergo a drug test. The test was positive for marijuana.

Marjam’s drug-free workplace policy required someone with a positive drug test to enroll in a drug rehab program at the employee’s expense and submit to another drug test within 30 days.

Meanwhile, the company doctor determined Lineman could return to work on light duty.

When Lineman didn’t enroll in a rehab program or produce a second drug test, Marjam terminated his employment and cut off his workers’ comp benefits because he was capable of light duty work.

Lineman appealed the suspension of the comp benefits. A Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) determined Lineman was capable of light duty work and Marjam would have provided him with that work except he violated the company’s drug-free workplace policy, resulting in his discharge.

The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board affirmed the WCJ’s decision. Lineman took his case to a state court.

‘Yep, I used pot, but … ‘

When Lineman took the drug test, he said he hadn’t used any illegal drugs. He changed his story when the test came back positive, admitting he had used pot.

So his argument wasn’t about whether he had actually used an illegal drug or whether the drug test was accurate. Instead, he presented three reasons why his workers’ comp benefits should be reinstated. He said Marjam didn’t:

  1. prove his firing wasn’t related to his work injury
  2. show that work within his physical capabilities was available, and
  3. issue a notice of ability to return to work.

The court found the WCJ had correctly determined that Lineman’s job loss was related to his positive drug test, not his ability to do work.

A manager for Marjam testified it would have made the following types of jobs available to Lineman: “boxing up small boxes of screws, sweeping, filing documents in the office.” So the court found Marjam did show light duty work Lineman could do was available.

The court also found that, under Pennsylvania law, since Lineman’s wage loss was caused by his misconduct, not by his injury, Marjam wasn’t required to issue a notice of ability to return to work.

For those reasons, the court upheld the decision that Lineman’s workers’ comp benefits could be suspended.

This case provides good news for employers (at least in Pennsylvania since workers’ comp laws differ from state to state): Your drug-free workplace policy isn’t trumped by workers’ comp law when an injured employee tests positive for drugs.

What do you think about the court’s decision? Use the comments to weigh in.

(Lineman v. Marjam Supply Co., Commonwealth Court of PA, No. 713 C.D. 2013, 10/17/13)

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