A construction worker does some cocaine and drinks a few beers while on the job and then is injured when he falls off a ladder. He can’t get workers’ compensation, right? Wrong, he can collect, under certain circumstances.
In an Oct. 7, 2022, Alaska Supreme Court decision, the court found that a construction worker who was injured in a fall when a ladder collapsed could collect benefits since the incident would have occurred whether or not he was intoxicated at the time.
‘A revolving frat house’
Virgil Adams fell about 30 feet while attempting a roof repair in 2011 on a rental property owned by Michael Heath and a trust known as O&M Enterprises. Adams fell when the cribbing the ladder was propped on collapsed. His injuries left him permanently and totally disabled.
Adams admitted to drinking beer and using cocaine before the incident occurred. The drugs and alcohol were provided by Heath, and Adams described the worksite as being “a revolving frat house” with beer readily available for everyone.
Doctor finds impairment was present
When emergency responders arrived, they asked Adams if he had consumed any alcohol. They needed to know only because the medication they were going to give him couldn’t be taken if alcohol was in the system. Adams told them he’d had three beers. The paramedic who provided care testified that Adams didn’t show signs of intoxication and that he had no adverse reaction to the medication.
Tests conducted in the hospital showed Adams had a blood-alcohol content level of 0.049. Cocaine was present, but it wasn’t possible to determine how much that affected him at the time of the incident. A doctor later verified that Adams would have had impairment of balance, speech, reaction time and judgment.
Claim disputed because of intoxication
Adams filed a claim, but Heath and O&M Enterprises didn’t have workers’ compensation insurance, so the claim went through to the state’s Workers’ Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund.
The Fund disputed the claim because Adams was intoxicated when the injury occurred.
‘Incident would’ve happened regardless of intoxication’
The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board reviewed the claim in 2017 and decided that Adams had a compensable disability because the incident would have happened regardless of his drug and alcohol use.
The Fund appealed with the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission, which affirmed the Board’s decision because substantial evidence supported it. The commission discounted the Fund’s argument that “Adams would not have been on the roof nor fallen from the ladder absent his alcohol and cocaine use.” In acknowledging Adam’s testimony that he didn’t check the cribbing before he climbed the ladder, the commission observed there was no evidence Adams would have checked it if he’d been sober. Further, there was no evidence that the ladder slipped for any other reason than the loose cribbing.
On appeal with the Alaska Supreme Court, the court found the Fund had the burden of proving that Adams’ injury was caused by his intoxication, but it failed to do so. The court said the commission correctly observed that it was unclear whether Adams would have inspected the cribbing had he been sober, since the cribbing didn’t show any obvious sign of damage or weakness. It also noted that Adams had climbed up and down the ladder several times with the cribbing showing no sign of weakness.