A worker who was part of a tree-trimming crew was injured when he fell out of a tree from a height of eight to ten feet. A urine test in the hospital showed pot use. He applied for workers’ comp benefits. Did his employer have enough evidence to deny comp because marijuana use was a cause of the fall?
Daniel Davidson worked for Boehm Landscaping Co. in Tennessee.
On the day of his fall, business owner Chris Boehm and a supervisor conducted a safety meeting with a five-man crew, including Davidson, before sending them to a location where they were going to clean up storm debris.
Boehm told the crew not to climb trees in the area because the necessary equipment for such work wouldn’t be available until the next day.
Another employee said Davidson smoked pot before reporting to the job site.
At about 10 a.m., Davidson began to scale a tree limb. The job foreman reminded Davidson of Boehm’s warning not to scale any trees that day. Despite the warning, Davidson continued until he fell from a height of eight to ten feet. One employee said it looked like Davidson “stepped into the air.”
Davidson applied for workers’ comp benefits for his injuries. The company denied benefits, arguing that the injury was the result of the employee’s intoxication and misconduct.
A trial court found that marijuana use was a cause of the fall and OK’d the denial of workers’ comp benefits. Davidson appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee.
Was employee impaired?
At trial, Davidson denied that he smoked pot on the morning of his fall, but he did admit using marijuana regularly.
A urine sample taken in the hospital tested positive for THC, the active chemical in marijuana, at more than 50 times the threshold for a positive result.
A doctor with the company that administered the drug test described Davidson’s THC level as “one of the more elevated” he had seen.
Another doctor testified as an expert on the effect of marijuana use. He described Davidson as a chronic pot user and said because of the “very high” test results, in his opinion, the worker was impaired at the time of his injury.
In his appeal, Davidson argued that the proof was insufficient to establish that he was intoxicated or that the intoxication was the direct cause of his injury.
Tennessee law says an employee who is injured on the job as a result of intoxication or illegal drug use isn’t entitled to workers’ comp.
When an employer has implemented a drug-free workplace, a positive drug test leads to a presumption that drug use was the cause of an injury.
However, the company didn’t have a drug-free workplace policy. When that’s the case, the employer bears the burden of establishing intoxication as the cause of an injury to avoid paying benefits.
The state’s supreme court ruled that since there was no other explanation for Davidson’s fall, it followed that his intoxication, as explained by the doctor, was a direct cause of the injury.
For that reason, the state’s highest court ruled that Davidson would not receive workers’ comp benefits for his injury.
An interesting side note to this case: The company had also argued that another reason why Davidson should not receive comp was because of willful misconduct. Employees were warned not to climb the trees without the proper equipment that morning, and Davidson was warned again when he climbed the tree.
However, the court said Davidson’s pot use prevented him from making a reasonable decision to disregard instructions, so the willful misconduct argument didn’t hold up.
What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the comments below.
(Davidson v. Business Personnel Solutions, Supreme Court of TN, No. 27999, 10/24/2011)