Amputated Fingertips, Marijuana, and Oxycontin Vapors: Larson's and the Law of Intoxication

Amputated Fingertips, Marijuana, and Oxycontin Vapors: Larson's and the Law of Intoxication

By John Stahl, Esq.

Whether proof that a workers’ compensation claimant ingested marijuana or another illegal substance within a relevant period before sustaining otherwise compensable harm justified denying workers’ compensation benefits for that harm demonstrates the “it depends” legal principle.  

Recent workers’ compensation rulings by the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board and Arkansas Division of Workers’ Compensation demonstrate that one relevant factor was whether adequate proof existed that the claimant was under the influence of the illegally, or improperly, used substance when the work-related injury occurred. Another consideration was whether any intoxication that coincided with a compensable incident played a highly significant role regarding that harm.

The results in those disputes was consistent with the analysis of the impact of intoxication on workers’ compensation rights in Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law.

Carter v. Steven Parks, 2012 AK Wrk. Comp. LEXIS 159

Garrett Carter sought workers’ compensation benefits regarding two amputated fingertips. This incident occurred while Carter was mowing lawns within the course and scope of his employment with The Lawn Rangers, Inc. (Rangers).

Rangers challenged the compensability of the injury, arguing that an exclusion under Alaska Stat. § 23.30.235 in the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act applied. That language stated that the circumstances under which a workers’ compensation claimant waived the right to benefits included sustaining an otherwise compensable injury that was “proximately caused by intoxication of the injured employee or proximately caused by the employee being under the influence of drugs unless the drugs were taken as prescribed by the employee’s physician.”

It was undisputed that Carter’s supervisor purchased an oxycontin (oxy) tablet the day of the incident. There was also no doubt that Carter and the supervisor heated the tablet in order to inhale the resulting vapors. One disputed issue was whether Carter inhaled any of the vapors before stepping on the burning oxy tablet after it fell on his lap. Doubt remained as well regarding how much time elapsed between Carter and his supervisor heating that tablet and the lawnmower blade amputating Carter’s fingertips.

The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board (Board) awarded Carter the requested benefits. The Board seemingly determined that whether Carter had inhaled vapors from the burning oxy tablet was irrelevant because the credible version of the relevant events demonstrated that Carter’s accident occurred more than four hours after he and his supervisor attempted to inhale the oxy vapors. The Board concluded as well that oxy’s effects only lasted an hour.

The Board also rejected Rangers’ assertion that any indication of marijuana in Carter’s system when the accident occurred would disqualify him from receiving the requested benefits even if he was not high when he was injured. The Board determined both that Carter had not used marijuana on the day of the incident and that the effects of any prior use would have ended before the accident.

The Board further concluded that Rangers did not meet the requirements under Alaska Stat. § 23.30.235 of showing that Carter:

  • was intoxicated or under the influence of drugs when his accident occurred;
  • that intoxication or influence impaired Carter’s mental or physical faculties; and
  • that impairment proximately caused the injury for which Carter sought benefits.

In other words, the lack of credible proof that Carter had any drug-related impairment when the lawn mower blades sliced his fingers precluded avoiding workers’ compensation liability on the basis of intoxication.

Note: Agency decisions, while not binding authority, often deal with cutting edge issues. As such, they are informative and summarized here for those purposes.

Hudgens v. Aid Temporary Services, Inc., 2011 Ar. Wrk. Comp. LEXIS 437, aff’d 2012 Ark. App. 471 (Sept. 12, 2012)

Clayton Hudgens cut the tips off three fingers while operating a machine with a large blade that sliced plastic at Tenex’s recycling facility. The response of Hudgens’ employer to his subsequent workers’ compensation claim included asserting that Hudgens was not entitled to benefits because the accident was attributable to intoxication from smoking marijuana two days before that incident.

The employer based its argument on the provision in Ark. Code Ann. § 11-9-102(4) that provided that “’compensable injury’ does not include … injury where the accident was substantially occasioned by the use of alcohol, illegal drugs, or prescription drugs used in contravention of physician’s orders.”

Evidence that supported Hudgens’ claim that he was not intoxicated when the blade sliced off his fingertips included his testimony that he was clear-headed at that time. Several other witnesses testified that there was no indication that Hudgens was under the influence of marijuana on the day of the incident.

Evidence that supported the employer’s assertion that Hudgens was intoxicated when the accident occurred included a positive test for marijuana metabolites at the hospital after that incident.

The Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission (Commission) affirmed the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who considered the merits of the case. The Commission concluded that the preponderance of the evidence supported the ALJ’s determination that Hudgens “failed to overcome the statutory presumption [under Ark. Code Ann. § 11-9-102(4)] that his injury was substantially occasioned by the use of illegal drugs.”

The ALJ’s reasoning included the determinations that “the preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that the claimant’s injury was the result of the claimant’s ‘impairment,’ (the use of poor judgment, carelessness, inattentiveness, slow reflexes, and misjudgment of distance) caused by his use of marijuana.”

On September 12, 2012, the Arkansas Court of Appeal issued a decision, affirming the Commission’s decision.

Larson’s on Intoxication

Analysis in Larson’s provides insights regarding the decisions described above. This leading treatise explains in Ch. 36 that “voluntary intoxication which renders an employee incapable of performing work is a departure from the course of employment. Otherwise, apart from special statute, evidence of intoxication at the time of injury is ordinarily no defense, at least unless intoxication was the sole cause of injury.”

Larson’s in Ch. 36, § 36.02[1] goes on to state that “the reported cases in which intoxication has, apart from special statute, been successfully urged as a defense have gone on the theory that, by reaching an advanced stage of intoxication, the claimant has abandoned the employment, since the claimant is incapable of engaging in the duties of that employment. If the claimant continues actively to perform work duties, even while admittedly intoxicated, the employment has not been abandoned.”

Simplified further, Larson’s conclusions merely reiterate the “no fault” aspect of workers’ compensation law. Those interpretations of that law additionally bolster the basic principles of compensating a worker for harm that arises within the course and scope of that person’s employment and of granting him or her every reasonable presumption regarding the compensability of such injuries.

Bottom Line

A successful intoxication defense to an otherwise undisputed workers’ compensation claim typically requires showing that a claimant would not have sustained the relevant harm “but for” the intoxication.

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