Thursday, April 7, 2011

Weed, Work Comp, and Bears, Oh My!

Workers’ compensation is a form of no-fault insurance that provides various benefits to injured workers, regardless of whether the employer is at fault for the injuries. It also means that even if the employee is “at fault” for his or her own injuries, by virtue of the employee’s negligence, carelessness or even stupidity, those injuries are usually still covered by workers’ compensation in Minnesota.

One exception in Minnesota is if an injured worker is intoxicated at the time of the injury, and the intoxication is found to be the proximate cause of the injury, the employer is not liable for payment of workers’ compensation benefits.

A positive drug or alcohol test or admitted drug or alcohol use prior to an on-the-job injury in Minnesota will usually result in a denial of a workers’ compensation claim by the workers’ compensation insurance company. Just because the workers’ compensation insurance company denies the claim, however, doesn’t mean that they won’t ultimately be found liable for benefits.

In Minnesota, in order to succeed on an intoxication defense, it is the burden of the employer to show that the intoxication was the proximate cause of the injury. What this means is that the employer must show that the drug or alcohol intoxication directly caused the injuries. In many, if not most cases, the employee’s injury would have occurred regardless of whether or not the employee was intoxicated at the time of the injury. Moreover, a positive drug or alcohol test doesn’t automatically prove that an employee is intoxicated. An employer will have to prove that the employee was actually intoxicated at the time of the injury.

A recent and controversial case out of Montana illustrates this point. Brock Hopkins was mauled by a grizzly bear at Great Bear Adventures in Montana when he entered a bear cage to feed the grizzly bears. He was awarded benefits, but his case involved a number of disputed issues. Most interestingly, Brock Hopkins admitted that he smoked some weed that morning before he entered the bear cage. His employer of course, argued that he should not be awarded benefits because he was stoned, and his intoxication was the proximate, or direct cause of his injuries. The Montana Supreme Court upheld the award of benefits by the Workers’ Compensation Court.

The Montana Supreme Court noted that "Hopkins' use of marijuana to kick off a day of working around grizzly bears was ill-advised to say the least and mind-bogglingly stupid to say the most," but further noted that grizzlies are "equal opportunity maulers," without regard to marijuana consumption. Without evidence of Hopkins' level of impairment, the Montana Supreme Court upheld the Workers’ Compensation Judge’s conclusion that marijuana was not the major contributing cause of Hopkins' injuries.

I would venture to say that had this case occurred in Minnesota, the result would probably have been the same.

To read more about this case, check out this Workers’ Comp Insider article, or read the Montana Supreme Court decision.

For a free, no-obligation consultation regarding your Minnesota workers’ compensation rights, contact Meuser & Associate at 877-746-5680 or click here to send us an email.


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