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Did Drug Use Cause Accident?

Did Drug Use Cause Accident?.

May 11, 2009

Did Drug Use Cause Accident?

An employee of a Virginia coal company was injured in a workplace accident. His employer claimed that the injury was not compensable because he had been taking methadone at the time. The employee countered that he was taking the drug under a doctor’s supervision and that it had nothing to do with the accident.

What happened. “Brad,” an employee of Dominion Coal Corporation, was injured in 2007 when a roof-bolting machine fell on him. Brad was taken to a hospital, where he tested positive for methadone. Dominion wrote a letter to the Workers’ Compensation Commission, claiming that Brad’s injury was not compensable because he was under the influence of drugs when the accident occurred. Brad protested and filed a claim for benefits. He said that he was undergoing outpatient treatment and had been prescribed methadone by his doctor.

At a hearing before a workers’ compensation deputy commissioner, Dominion argued that Brad’s claim should be denied under a statute of the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act (VA Stat. Sec. 65.2-306), which provides that no compensation should be awarded for injuries caused by an employee’s use of a nonprescribed controlled substance. At this hearing, Brad admitted that he was taking the methadone illegally; he had falsely told his doctor that he was addicted to other drugs in order to get the methadone prescription, which he wanted for pain relief. But because there was no evidence that Brad’s drug use caused the accident, the deputy commissioner found that this admission did not invalidate his claim for benefits. The full commission then upheld the award of benefits. Dominion appealed.

What the court said. On appeal, Dominion argued that Brad’s drug use had caused the accident, but offered little in the way of proof beyond restating the fact that Brad was under the influence of methadone at the time. The court of appeals used the facts as found by the commission in deciding whether the commission had been correct.

In reaching its decision, the commission interpreted the statute to mean that the employer had to prove that the influence of drugs had caused the accident. Brad’s injury was caused by a roof-bolting machine that had fallen from above. The commission had found that Brad’s use of methadone did not cause or contribute to this accident. It relied on his doctor’s testimony that the methadone treatment was being administered as part of a structured program under the doctor’s supervision, and did not interfere with Brad’s ability to perform normal activities, including work.

The fact that Brad had obtained the drug under false pretenses didn’t matter: Dominion offered no evidence to prove that methadone was the cause of the accident or to show that the doctor’s opinion was invalid. The court of appeals held that the commission had been correct in concluding that Brad’s methadone use did not cause the accident and upheld the award of benefits. Dominion Coal v. Bowman, Court of Appeals of Virginia, No. 0628-08-3 (2009).

Point to remember: An employee’s use of drugs on the job is not an employer’s free pass from paying workers’ compensation benefits should that employee get injured. If an employee’s drug use is not deemed a factor in causing a workplace accident, it will not invalidate a claim for workers’ comp benefits.

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