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PA’s “Intoxication Defense” can cause injured workers to forfeit all benefits

May 5, 2021

By Shelley W. Elovitz, Esquire

The Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act operates on a liability premise of no-fault, meaning if a worker is injured on the job, he or she is entitled to benefits without either side having to prove one of the parties is at fault. The exception to this is the “Intoxication Defense.” Section 301(a) of the Workers’ Compensation Act says “In cases where the injury or death is caused by intoxication, no compensation shall be paid if the injury or death would not have been caused but for the employee’s intoxication…”

If the employer is able to prove the Intoxication Defense, the injured worker forfeits ALL benefits. Alcohol is an obvious issue, but drugs, even prescribed ones, can also raise this defense. The complication of medical marijuana and the issues of it being legal at the state level but illegal at the federal level, brings another wrinkle. If a worker sustains a serious injury or death and it is discovered upon treatment or during an autopsy that drugs or alcohol were in the person’s system, the employer can contest the claim. If the claim is contested, the employer must prove that the employee was intoxicated and the intoxication caused the injury or death.

This is a relatively new defense. The Workers’ Compensation Act, when originally drafted and enacted, had no intoxication defense. It was not until 1993 that the Intoxication Defense was added as a part of a nationwide trend of cracking down on drugs and alcohol in the workplace. A string of drunk driving offenses established that because a blood alcohol content (BAC) over the legal limit (currently .08) established a presumption of intoxication, employers argued they could establish the same presumption in the workplace. Case law has held that “a summary offense when it is a necessary element and directly results in the commission of a misdemeanor, may constitute a violation under the Act.” So, drunk driving or using marijuana while driving is a violation of the law and can result in a forfeiture of benefits. Going back Section 301(a) – “In cases where the injury or death is caused by intoxication, no compensation shall be paid” – expands the reach of the intoxication defense. An injury while operating a forklift or climbing a ladder while under the influence of drugs or alcohol can also result in a complete loss of benefits.

The worker can argue that the test was incorrect or that he or she was not impaired. And the employer must still prove the intoxication caused the injury – however, the employer does not have to prove intoxication is the only cause for the injury. In fact, Pennsylvania is the only state that does not oblige the employer to prove intoxication was the proximate cause (a material contributing factor) of the accident.

The use of drugs or alcohol in the workplace can complicate a Workers’ Compensation claim and even result in a complete forfeiture of benefits, especially in Pennsylvania, where the employer is not obliged to prove intoxication was the proximate cause. If you have questions about an injury you sustained on the job, contact us online or call (412) 338-1114.

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