An effort has stalled in one state to clear up conflicting portions of its workers’ comp law about drunk/drugged employees who are injured. This raises the question: Can impaired employees get comp benefits when they’re injured?
A bill in the New Mexico legislature would attempt to clear up the law in that state. The conflict was brought to light by a case that dates back to 2006.
Edward Villa, a sanitation worker for the city of Las Cruces, fell off his garbage truck and injured his head, wrists and a hip. Three hours after the incident, Villa’s blood-alcohol level was measured as .12, well above the .08 limit in New Mexico for being legally intoxicated.
The case went all the way to the New Mexico Court of Appeals, which noted conflicting aspects of the state’s workers’ comp law.
One part says a worker can’t receive comp if they are injured as a result of their intoxication. Another part says the compensation can be cut by up to 10% if intoxication is a contributing factor.
The court ruled Villa could receive 90% of the workers’ comp benefits he would have received if he hadn’t been legally drunk at the time.
Legislation to clear up law
New Mexico Rep. Dennis Roch (R) introduced a bill in the state legislature to clear up the legal contradictions in current law and include drug abuse as well as alcohol abuse in rejecting workers’ comp claims.
When the bill was raised in the House Labor and Human Resources Committee, it was tabled on a party-line vote: five Democrats voting to table the bill, four Republicans voting against tabling it.
Committee chairman, Rep. Miguel Garcia (D) called the bill “overbearing and punitive in terms of the worker.”
A tabled bill can be re-raised, but there are few days remaining in the current legislative session to do so. A similar bill has been introduced in the New Mexico Senate.
What’s happened in other states?
Even when state workers’ comp laws are more clear about what can happen when a worker is impaired at the time of an injury, it’s not a slam dunk that comp benefits will be denied.
Here are some cases we’ve written about previously:
- An employee at a juvenile detention center was injured while subduing an unruly juvenile. The worker tested positive for pot. But the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled there wasn’t any evidence to show that marijuana in the employee’s system was the major cause of the injury, and for that reason, the worker should receive comp benefits.
- After having smoked pot, an employee was mauled by a grizzly in a bear park. The Montana Supreme Court said since marijuana use wasn’t the major contributing factor that caused his injuries, the employee should get comp benefits.
- It is possible to win one of these cases. A painter drank a fair amount of alcohol one day at work, took a nap, woke up and then fell down an elevator shaft. His comp benefits were denied because the Utah Court of Appeals, but not because of alcohol use. The court ruled the employee wasn’t working at the time when he was injured.
How should state laws address these situations? Let us know what you think in the comments below.