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Intoxicated employee can still win workers’ comp benefits

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in Employee Benefits Program,Human Resources

Under the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Law, employees who are hurt at work because they were intoxicated can’t receive workers’ compensation benefits. Yet employers should be aware of the law’s fine print.

It’s not enough for the employee to have a high blood alcohol reading. His employer must convince the workers’ compensation judge that intoxication was the sole cause of the accident, not just a contributing factor.

The New Jersey Supreme Court recently interpreted that to mean workers’ comp judges can consider other factors and refuse to block benefits even if the employee was clearly drunk at the time of his injury.

Recent case: James Tlumac drove a truck for 12 straight days before drinking several beers, then sleeping for a few hours. Shortly after starting his next shift, he claimed that he fell asleep and woke up after his truck went off the road and hit a utility pole.

At the hospital, his blood alcohol level tested 0.087. Experts later testified that his level was higher than the legal limit when the accident happened.

When Tlumac applied for benefits, his employer objected, citing his intoxication. But the workers’ comp judge awarded him benefits anyway, saying fatigue and sleep deprivation, not just drinking, might have caused the accident.

The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed. It reasoned the state workers’ comp law required employers to show intoxication was the sole reason for the injury, not just one of several factors. (Tlumac v. High Bridge Stone, No. A-69, Supreme Court of New Jersey, 2006)  

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