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Kansas high court rules widow entitled to survivor benefits

Kansas capitol

The widow of a worker with a staffing agency who fell to his death and was later found to have marijuana in his system can still collect workers compensation survivor benefits because testimony indicated there were no signs that the worker was impaired, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Friday. 

Gary Woessner fell 15 feet while working on a jobsite catwalk for “no apparent reason” and died of his injuries six months later, according to documents in Gary L. Woessner, deceased v. Labor Max Staffing and XL Specialty Insurance Co., filed in Topeka.

Mr. Woessner’s employer, Labor Max Staffing, accepted his claim but stopped paying benefits after his death, arguing that marijuana caused his death, according to documents.

Under Kansas law the employer is not liable when marijuana consumption is found to contribute to an employee’s work-related injury, yet the employer must provide “clear and convincing evidence” that the drug caused impairment that led to an accident. Mr. Woessner’s marijuana drug test was “well above the statutory level” to trigger the presumption that drugs caused his fall, according to documents. 

The parties not only disagreed on the admissibility of the drug test results, questioning the handling of them, but they also disagreed on whether Mr. Woessner’s positive drug test was related to his accident.

A coworker testified that Mr. Woessner “was a careful worker” and that he “observed claimant shortly before his accident and he did not notice claimant acting any differently than he normally did.” The coworker “was asked if claimant exhibited several signs of using marijuana and answered in the negative,” according to documents.

Ultimately an appeals court ruled that the test results were admissible and held the record was “insufficient concerning the … finding that Woessner's impairment did not contribute to the accident for meaningful appellate review,” so the appeals court remanded that issue for additional proceedings.

The Supreme Court, in Friday’s decision, ruled that the results were admissible but that the employer failed to prove the marijuana caused impairment that led to Mr. Woessner's fall, holding that “sufficient evidence existed to support” that it was "highly probable” that his impairment did not contribute to his accident.