In a unanimous decision, the Arizona Supreme Court recently held that a law banning workers’ compensation benefits to employees whose alcohol or drug use contributed to their injury where their employers had drug-free workplace policies conflicted with the Arizona Constitution. Article 18, Section 8 of the state Constitution mandates payment of workers’ compensation benefits for work-related injuries without consideration of fault by the injured employee.
David Grammatico installed metal trim on building exteriors for AROK, Inc. He performed this job function on drywall stilts approximately forty-two inches in height. While walking through a cluttered area of the job site, Grammatico fell and injured his wrist and knee. He later admitted to smoking marijuana and ingesting methamphetamine on the two previous days (when he was not scheduled to work). In a post-accident drug test, Grammatico tested positive for marijuana, amphetamine, and methamphetamine. He was denied workers’ compensation coverage pursuant to Arizona Revised Statutes § 23-1021(D).
Austin Komalestewa worked on a conveyor belt system for Stoneville Pedigree Seed. While attempting to fix a belt that had “bogged down,” Komalestewa caught his arm in the belt and was seriously injured. Komalestewa admitted he had four mixed drinks containing vodka the night before the accident. Based on blood drawn after the accident, it was determined that his blood-alcohol level at the time of the accident would have been at least 0.176 percent. He was denied workers’ compensation coverage pursuant to A.R.S. § 23-1021(C).
The Court of Appeals split on these decisions and held in one instance that coverage was required, and in the other, that coverage was precluded. The Arizona Supreme Court consolidated the two cases and granted review because of the conflict between the lower courts on the applicability of Article 18, Section 8 of the Arizona Constitution.
In its decision, the Arizona Supreme Court gave a detailed history of the enactment of Arizona’s workers’ compensation law, and explained that the two principles underlying recovery for workers’ compensation benefits are “medical causation” (the accident caused the injury) and “legal causation” (the employee was acting in the course of employment, the employee suffered an injury arising out of and in the course of employment, and the injury was caused in whole or in part or contributed to by a necessary risk or danger of employment). The Court then focused on whether A.R.S. § 23-1021(C) and (D) impermissibly limited legal causation by requiring proof that the presence of alcohol or illegal drugs in an injured worker’s system was not a contributing cause of the accident.
Article 18, Section 8 of the Arizona Constitution states that an employee establishes legal causation by showing that a necessary risk or danger of employment caused or contributed to the accident “in whole or in part.” The Court found, however, that A.R.S. § 23-1021(D) denies coverage unless the employee can establish that a necessary risk or danger of employment wholly caused the accident. The Court concluded that “Article 18, Section 8 does not permit the legislature to limit legal causation in that manner.”
The Court also held that A.R.S. § 23-1021(C) similarly runs afoul of Article 18, Section 8 because it denies workers’ compensation benefits if alcohol or drugs contributed to the accident – even where the accident was caused, in part, by a necessary risk or danger of employment. Section (C) impermissibly would preclude benefits if alcohol was anything more than a slight contributing cause of the injury.
The Court then concluded that because the necessary risks and dangers of employment could have partially caused or contributed to Grammatico and Komalestewa’s injuries, A.R.S. § 23-1021(C) and (D) may not be applied to deny their benefits. Grammatico v. Industrial Commission, No. CV-04-0197, Arizona Supreme Court (August 10, 2005).
According to Tracy Miller, a shareholder in Ogletree Deakins’ Phoenix office: “This ruling does not preclude an employer from conducting drug testing and disciplining its employees in accordance with their drug-free workplace policies. It merely requires that should an employee testing positive for drugs or alcohol be injured on the job, the company cannot prevent that employee from recovering workers’ compensation benefits.”
Should you have any questions about this decision and its ramifications, please contact the Ogletree Deakins attorney with whom you normally work or the Client Services Department at 866-2872576 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: This article was published in the August 18, 2005 issue of the Arizona eAuthority.