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Injured While Drunk at Work? Can You Receive Benefits?
At lunchtime, your work buddies decide to take you out to celebrate your birthday. You’re not generally a drinker, so it’s no surprise that it takes only one mimosa to make you feel a bit tipsy. You return to the office, and within a matter of minutes, something falls off a shelf and lands on the back of your neck. At first, you brush off the accident as you figure the pain will go away. By the next day, your neck is literally throbbing. When you ask your employer for a medical referral, you are shocked. You’re not entitled to benefits because you were injured while drunk at work.
Understandably, you are livid. First of all, you had one drink. As you see it, you were barely buzzed and – certainly not drunk. Where did your boss come up with the idea that you were intoxicated? Was it something your co-workers told him? What proof does he have? It’s not like you were asked to submit to a breath test – or taken somewhere to give urine or blood.
If you think something is wrong with your company’s decision to deny you benefits, you may be right. There’s another consideration. What if you really were drunk and injured at work? Did the accident happen because of your intoxicated state? More importantly, was it the sole cause of your injuries?
Intoxication: How it Relate to Your Work Accident
It goes without saying that intoxication of any kind is frowned upon in the workplace. This includes the use of alcohol, prescribed medications, or controlled dangerous substances. After a work accident, some employers will quickly transport an injured employee to a medical clinic or hospital for drug and alcohol screening.
That said, there’s something every injured worker needs to know. Just because the tests come back with a positive reading – does not mean you will automatically be denied workers’ compensation benefits.
The New Jersey law regarding compensable workplace accidents is found at NJSA 34:15-7. It’s clear that in order for an employee to receive benefits, the injuries must be related to an “accident arising out of and in the course of employment.” However, the statute also cites exceptions to these rules, including “intoxication or the unlawful use of controlled dangerous substances as defined in the “New Jersey Controlled Dangerous Substances Act.”
Workers’ compensation allowances include payment for medical treatment and temporary disability benefits. In some instances, you may even be entitled to at least a portion of permanent disability checks. Should you be worried about forfeiting all of these if your employer has proof that you were intoxicated when the workplace accident occurred?
Admittedly, New Jersey has a unique perspective when it comes to determining whether a claimant is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. In order for your employer to use your drunken state to deny your claim, the company has more to prove. The cause of the accident becomes a major issue.
Sole Proximate Cause
Let’s go back to our exemplary scenario. You were injured because something heavy fell off a shelf and struck you in the neck. However, why exactly did the item tumble down?
If you were determined to be intoxicated, the answer will become the subject of investigation as far as whether or not you are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. It could be that the heavy object was carelessly put back on the shelf before you even left for lunch. Maybe a coworker pulled one object down and another fell.
The bottom line is that unless there is evidence that your intoxication was the sole proximate cause of the accident, you are entitled to benefits. However, the emphasis here is on sole – your injuries only happened because you were drunk.
To be clear, it is of no consequence that your intoxication contributed to the accident. Or, even that it was the main cause. Again, your employer and their workers’ compensation insurance company have some work to do when denying a claim based on intoxication.