An insurance company didn’t want to pay this workers’ comp claim because the worker was drunk at the time he was injured.
Thomas Phillips performed yard work and minor home repairs as part of his lease agreement for a trailer with Norman and Diane Crocker. Phillips received a rent reduction for doing the work.
On Aug. 11, 2006, Norman Crocker asked Phillips to remove a branch from a tree. The next day, Phillips fell from a ladder while cutting the branch with a chainsaw. No one witnessed the fall. Phillips’ wife found him on the ground and called the Crockers who arrived. Norman Crocker later said it appeared the branch snapped in half, causing Phillips to lose his balance and fall. Phillips was rendered a quadriplegic as a result.
A blood test taken when Phillips arrived at the hospital showed his blood alcohol content to be .27.
On Aug. 10, 2009, Phillips filed a workers’ comp claim. The Crockers’ insurance company, State Farm, denied the claim for four reasons:
- there was no employer-employee relationship
- Phillips’ injury wasn’t causally related to employment
- Phillips was at fault for his injury, and
- Phillips didn’t provide timely notice of his injury to the Crockers (New Hampshire law requires the employee notify the employer about an injury within two years).
A New Hampshire Department of Labor hearing officer determined Phillips was entitled to workers’ comp benefits. State Farm appealed to the New Hampshire Compensation Appeals Board (CAB).
The CAB found:
- Phillips was an employee of the Crockers
- he failed to provide timely notice of his injury to his employer
- Phillips was intoxicated at the time of his injury, and
- the Crockers didn’t know Phillips was drunk when he fell.
Saying he didn’t file a timely notice to his employer and he was drunk at the time, the CAB reversed the hearing officer’s decision and denied workers’ comp benefits to Phillips. The case then went to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
Was fall caused by intoxication?
Phillips argued the CAB erred when it ruled he didn’t provide timely notice about his injury to the Crockers. After all, they were there within minutes of his fall.
State Farm argued this wasn’t a typical case because the Crockers weren’t sophisticated employers who would have known Phillips’ injury might make him eligible for workers’ comp benefits. This was a “domestic labor” situation, State Farm argued. The court didn’t buy the argument.
The insurance company also said Phillips’ notice of his injury needed to be in writing. The court said it found nothing in the New Hampshire workers’ comp law that notice about an injury had to be in writing.
On the matter of his alcohol consumption on the day of his injury, Phillips told the court he didn’t dispute that he was intoxicated. However, he argued the Crockers didn’t prove his intoxication caused his injury in part or whole.
New Hampshire’s workers’ comp law states, “The employer shall not be liable for any injury to a worker which is caused in whole or in part by the intoxication of the worker. The provision as to intoxication shall not apply, however, if the employer knew that the employee was intoxicated.”
The court found that the CAB had only ruled Phillips was drunk at the time of his fall, but it didn’t find whether or not his intoxication caused his injury either in part or whole.
Phillips also argued the Crockers knew about his intoxication because he was an alcoholic and usually drank on the job. However, the court said it’s not enough that the employer should have known the employee was intoxicated.
The court remanded the case back to the CAB for it to determine whether Phillips’ intoxication caused his injury either in part or whole. Until that is decided, there’s currently nothing that would deny Phillips from receiving workers’ comp benefits under New Hampshire law.
The take-home: While it’s true that many states deny workers’ comp payments when alcohol is involved in a workplace injury, it has to be shown that alcohol was at least a partial cause of the incident.
What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the comments below.
(Appeal of Thomas Phillips, Supreme Court of NH, No. 2011-683, 8/21/13)