Burden of Proof in Claims Involving Intoxication Is More That Just Proving Intoxication

A recent case from Virginia reinforced a ruling that an injured employee can’t just be under the influence during the injury for the employer to be relieved of the burden of a workers’ compensation claim.  The employer needs to go even further than simply proving the employee was intoxicated. Evidence needs to prove that the intoxication was the cause of the injury-causing accident.

In this specific case, an employee not only attended the employer’s orientation program, but also confirmed acknowledgement of the company’s policy on working under the influence of drugs or alcohol — a zero tolerance policy.

The morning of the accident, the employee stated that he’d only had coffee to drink that day, but that he’d been drinking the day before. While he was at work, the employee climbed a ladder and did his job for a number of hours. The ladder was in a clean room, where employees used boot scrapers and covers that had extra traction to provide additional precautions. All tools were clean, and the area surrounding the ladder was clear and dry, without obstacles or objects that would cause an imbalance.

The employee, though, fell from the ladder. Six hours after he fell, the employee’s blood and urine were tested in an occupational health center, and the results showed that his BAC level was .02 when the tests were conducted. Professionals estimated that when he fell, his levels would have been between .09 and .17 — proving his intoxication at the time of the fall. The employee was terminated later in the day.

The Findings

The deputy commissioner agreed that the employee was intoxicated, but added that since the employee had no problems working earlier in the day, he should receive an award of lifetime medical benefits, as well as temporary total disability benefits.

The Commission, though, said that ladder falls are common even when employees aren’t intoxicated. Since the employee was intoxicated, the termination was legitimate and the employee shouldn’t receive wage benefits while in the partial disability period.

The case arrived at the court of appeals, where it was determined that the employer had, in fact, proven the employee’s intoxication and had shown the acknowledgement of the employer’s safety rule. However, the court found that since ladder falls are common, the employer did not provide enough evidence that the fall was caused by the employee’s intoxication.

It’s important to note that this case is more of the rule than the exception.  It is quite common in many states that employers must prove that the employee’s intoxication was the direct cause of the accident that caused injury or death in order to be relieved of the burden of the workers’ compensation claim.  This highlights the need to not simply rely on the post-accident drug screen, but to also conduct a thorough post-accident investigation.  Witness accounts from other employees describing the intoxicated condition of their injured co-worker can make all the difference.

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