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Positive Drug Test No Bar to Compensation for Deceased Worker’s Family

On Behalf of | Oct 14, 2015 | Georgia Workers' Compensation |

The surviving family of a deceased worker may still collect workers’ compensation death benefits, even though he tested positive for marijuana.

An appellate court in Louisiana ruled the family was entitled to benefits after the warehouseman for the Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific pulp and paper company was injured and killed while working the night shift. According to records of the case, the worker had been operating a truck lift, loading various materials onto trailers.

At some point past midnight, decedent suffered fatal injuries, though no one saw what happened. Based on evidence from the autopsy, it appears the worker sustained blunt force injuries to his head and chest. Investigators suspect decedent’s injuries may have been the result of being struck by the rear of one of the trailers he was loading.

As part of the autopsy, the coroner conducted a toxicology test. Blood and urine tests showed the man had THC – the active ingredient in marijuana – in his system. This was not an individual who had a valid prescription for the drug. Louisiana legislators in June 2015 significantly lowered criminal penalties for possession of the drug, and initial steps were taken to usher in allowance of medical use for people with cancer, glaucoma and cerebral palsy.

However, this individual didn’t suffer from any of those conditions, and this occurred two years before passage of those measures.

When decedent’s children filed a claim for workers’ compensation death benefits, employer denied the claim, arguing benefits were forfeited by decedent based on the positive drug test. The company argued that positive test effectively triggered a state exemption to workers’ compensation benefits for workers who are intoxicated at the time of a job-related accident.

Our Atlanta occupational injury attorneys recognize this as a tricky area of law. On the one hand, workers’ compensation is a no-fault system. Comparative fault or negligence on the part of an employee is no bar to receipt of benefits to either the worker or his or her family. On the other hand, many insurers and employers have successfully argued that if a worker is under the influence of alcohol or drugs while working, his or her actions are outside the course and scope of employment. Some states even have statutes that expressly state that injuries caused by non-prescription, illegal drugs are non-compensable.

But the question here was whether decedent was in fact impaired at the time of his work accident. Unlike alcohol, which moves through the human body very quickly, the presence of marijuana can linger for days, weeks and possibly more than a month. What that means is that finding it in one’s system isn’t necessarily proof of intoxication at any given time. This was the argument put forth by decedent’s dependent children.

To support their claim, attorneys for the children pointed out that no one who saw decedent that night believed he appeared impaired. Further, lab tests indicated his marijuana use was “minimal,” suggesting that use likely occurred days before the accident.

A workers’ compensation administrative law judge found in favor of employer and denied benefits. However, the Louisiana Court of Appeal reversed in a unanimous, three-judge panel decision.

The panel stated co-workers’ testimony that decedent was alert, acting normally and did not appear to be impaired was especially compelling, especially in light of the low dosage noted in the toxicology report.

For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-920-4708 .