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Workers’ Comp: It Just Won’t Go Away

California Employee Benefits
by Jennifer Carsen

Workers’ comp – it’s not an area where the law tends to change very much, but it remains a hassle, day after day. In today’s CED, we’ll feature case studies – all based on real situations – that help us deal with this frustrating part of HR management.

Can an Employee ‘Under the Influence’ Be Denied Workers’ Comp Benefits?

Jason Kohler wore 42-inch drywall stilts on his job installing metal trim. At one point during his shift, he fell, breaking his right wrist and left knee.

By company policy, Kohler was tested for drugs, and he tested positive for marijuana, amphetamine, and methamphetamine. When confronted, Kohler admitted that he had smoked marijuana and taken the amphetamines over the previous weekend.

The company informed Kohler that he would not be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits because the state’s workers’ comp law denied coverage to workers who tested positive for drugs following an accident.

But Kohler found out that if he could prove taking drugs on his days off was not a contributing cause of the accident, he could still collect. He requested a hearing. Unable to convince the hearing judge, he took his case to court. Eventually, his case ended up before the state’s Supreme Court.

Decision: The employee should be compensated, ruled the Arizona Supreme Court. The court maintained that even though alcohol consumption and illegal drug use shortly before work or during work undeniably increase the chances of being injured on the job, workers’ comp is still a no-fault system. As a result, workplace accidents must be compensated even when drug or alcohol use may be a factor in the accident.

Comment: This ruling makes a strong argument for having clear drug and alcohol abuse policies that are well known to all employees and strictly enforced. It’s also a warning to supervisors to be more alert to behavior that might indicate a substance abuse problem.

Remember, despite court rulings like this one, you can still prohibit employees from working under the influence. You can still use drug and alcohol tests to check for abuse. And you can still counsel, discipline, or even discharge employees who violate company substance abuse policies.


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Can an Employee Sue for an Injury Sustained at an Employer-Sponsored Picnic?

The annual picnic at Betty Collins’s company was a big event; however, employees were not required to attend.

Shortly after Collins arrived, she and Ginny Brown partnered for the three-legged race. They won two heats, but Collins stumbled and fell in the third race, injuring her shoulder. The dream team was out of action, and Collins was on her way to the emergency room.

Collins filed for workers’ compensation, claiming that the injury arose out of her employment because it occurred at a company-sponsored picnic.

Her employer argued that the injury wasn’t covered because it took place outside the course of employment. Although the company sponsored the picnic and paid for it, attendance was voluntary – and so was participation in the organized games.


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DecisionThe employer is right, ruled the Tennessee Supreme Court. Employer-sponsored recreational or social activities fall within the course of employment only when:

  • They occur on company premises during a lunch or recreational period as a regular incident of the employment;
  • The employer expressly or impliedly requires participation; or
  • The employer derives substantial direct benefit from the activity beyond the intangible value of improvement in employee health and morale that is common to all kinds of recreation and social life.

Since none of those requirements applied in this case, the court said the employee could not collect workers’ compensation for her injury.

Comment: For recreational and social activities associated with the workplace, like softball teams and picnics, make sure your employees understand that participation is completely voluntary. It’s a good idea to get that disclaimer into any written notice about the event, such as a memo, bulletin board notice, or employee newsletter announcement.

Caveat: State laws on workers’ compensation differ. These cases might have come out another way in California, or in another state.

In tomorrow’s CED, more on workers’ compensation – plus an introduction to a brand-new, comprehensive workers’ comp resource specifically for California employers.

Download your free copy of Executive Summary: Healthcare Reform for California Employers today!

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  1. Anonymous        
    December 13, 2011 5:10 am

    In yesterday’s CED , we looked at two informative comp cases. Today, another case – plus an introduction

  2. Anonymous        
    December 13, 2011 5:10 am

    In yesterday’s CED , we looked at two informative comp cases. Today, another case – plus an introduction

  3. bcnhr        
    December 13, 2011 3:01 pm

    The first case isn’t that surprising–California courts seem to frown on employers messing with employees’ off-hours conduct, even if illegal. The second case, on the other hand, is a relief. What a nightmare a different ruling could have been.

  4. bcnhr        
    December 13, 2011 3:01 pm

    The first case isn’t that surprising–California courts seem to frown on employers messing with employees’ off-hours conduct, even if illegal. The second case, on the other hand, is a relief. What a nightmare a different ruling could have been.