Road Worrier: Can You Stop Worker on Painkillers from Driving?

by on
in Case In Point,Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

Do you have employees who are required to drive as part of their duties? What should you do if they start taking prescription painkillers? Do you have to still let them get behind the wheel in order to avoid an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim? Or can you fire them for not being able to perform the essential functions of the job?

Case in Point: Driving was an essential function of the job for Douglas Quinney, an account manager for a Coca-Cola distributor in Utah. However, Quinney suffered severe back pain and took several prescription painkillers, including Lorcet, Oxycontin and Duagesic patches.

One day, a co-worker reported Quinney was overusing his pain medicine. The company had a safety policy that prohibited employees from driving company cars while under the influence of legal or illegal drugs that could impair their driving. The company gave Quinney a drug test, which showed positive for Hydrocodone, a synthetic opiate.

The company’s medical review officer said Quinney shouldn’t drive a company vehicle while taking narcotic pain medication. Quinney was placed on leave and told he must refrain from using that pain medicine before he could return to his account manager job.

He attempted to get a doctor’s note saying he could drive safely, but only one doctor was willing to offer such a letter if Quinney could pass a driver safety test. But the company wouldn’t budge. It did offer Quinney other jobs that didn’t involve driving. He rejected those and quit.

Quinney sued the company, saying it failed to reasonably accommodate his disability under the ADA. He argued that his medicine was prescribed by his doctor. He couldn’t just stop taking the medicine, he said. And forcing him into a medicine-or-job decision violated the ADA, he said.

The company argued that this was a safety issue, not discrimination. And because Quinney couldn’t perform the essential functions of the job, he didn’t earn ADA protection. (Quinney v. Swire Coca-Cola, D. Utah, 5/18/2009)

What happened next … and what 3 lessons can be learned?

The court ruled in favor of the company, granting it summary judgment. Reason: The court rejected Quinney’s claim that the company must give him a driver, saying that the employer “did not have to retain the employee while assigning another employee to do the driving required by the job.” It also noted that the employer was not required to create another position for him “in order to provide a reasonable accommodation by reassignment.”

Finally, Quinney tried to argue that his accident-free record demonstrated his ability to drive safely. But the court said, “The fact that Quinney had been driving for many years without incident is not determinative of whether he had indeed been driving safely.”

3 Lessons Learned…Without Going to Court

1. Engage in the ADA interactive process. The company got on the court’s good side by staying engaged with the employee and having an ongoing dialogue about the situation in order to resolve it.

2.  Have written safety policies. And, don’t forget to distribute them. The court clung to the drug-and-alcohol safety policy as a solid reason for why Quinney could not drive company cars.

3.  Have clear job descriptions. The employer never would have won this case unless it could show that driving was an essential element of the job duties. Where did they get that evidence? In their own job descriptions.

Leave a Comment