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Construction Law

Alcohol, Drug Use Not a Factor in No-Fault Access to Worker's Comp Benefits

Arizona statutes requiring injured workers to prove cause of injuries violated constitutional right to compensation for job-related accidents

 

An Arizona statutory scheme enacted in 2000 required employees to affirmatively prove, before they could receive worker’s compensation benefits, that use of alcohol or drugs did not contribute their injuries. The laws were designed to limit liability for workplace injuries in favor of employers who maintain certified drug testing policies.

 

This article appeared in the October 2005 issue of "The Construction Advisor" published by Lang & Klain, P.C.


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Applying the statutes in two separate construction injury cases, Grammatico v. Industrial Commission (where an injured worker-plaintiff tested positive for marijuana, amphetamine and methamphetamine use) and Komalestewa v. Industrial Commission (where the worker-plaintiff’s blood tests indicated the presence of alcohol), resulted in a conflict between two panels of the Arizona Court of Appeals. In both cases, the employers raised the statutory defense, which placed the burden on the injured workers to prove that alcohol or drug use did not contribute to the cause of their injuries. The two panels differed on whether the statutes providing the defense conflicted with Arizona’s constitutional provision that creates worker’s compensation benefits.

Unconstitutional Limitation on Benefits

The Arizona Supreme Court resolved the conflict between the two rulings in August 2005. Its decision holds that the application of the statutory scheme is unconstitutional in cases where a necessary risk of employment either caused or contributed to the accident, and that the claims in both cases were compensable. The court explained its decision by reference to the history of workplace injury actions and the policy behind worker’s compensation.

History

Prior to the enactment of worker’s compensation law, employees were limited to pursuing damage awards in negligence actions against their employers, which were subject a variety of defenses even if the employer was at fault, if third parties or the injured worker contributed to the cause. The result was a scheme that was extremely expensive for both plaintiffs and defendants and made the plaintiff’s success nearly impossible. Article 18, Section 8 of the Arizona Constitution was enacted to provide workers (and employers) in Arizona with an alternative to common law tort actions.

No-Fault

Worker’s compensation law is designed to be a “no-fault” scheme: neither the employee’s nor the employer’s negligence affects compensation. The concept of “fault” is the point at which the statues and the Constitution conflict.

According to the Supreme Court, A.R.S. § 23-1021(D) interferes with the “no-fault” scheme by requiring the injured worker to prove that a necessary risk of employment was the sole cause of the accident. Similarly, the Supreme court reasoned that A.R.S. § 23-1021(C), which precludes benefits if the worker cannot prove that alcohol was not more than a “slight contributing cause” of the injury, requires the employee to prove he was not at fault in order to receive benefits. The two statutes, concluded the Court, impermissibly inject concepts of comparative fault into the no-fault worker’s compensation system, regardless of workplace dangers.

In order to recover benefits, a claimant still must prove that the injury was sustained in the course of employment, that the accident arose out of and in the course of the employment, that the accident caused the injury, and that either a necessary or inherent risk of employment caused or contributed to the industrial accident or the employer failed to exercise due care.

Drug-Free Workplace

While the ruling is good reason for employers to worry about becoming liable for all alcohol- and drug-related injuries that occur on the job site, the Court’s back-step from the statutory scheme of five years ago is limited, and incentives for maintaining a safe and drug-free workplace remain. Employers will still want to maintain a safe work environment and a drug-free workplace to reduce the risks of employment and on-the job accidents that can give rise to claims.