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A worker's drunkenness must contribute to the cause of his work-related injury for an employer to claim intoxication as a defense in workers compensation cases, New Hampshire's Supreme Court has ruled.
The worker's mere intoxication, without a causal relationship between his drinking and injury, cannot be used as a defense against providing workers comp benefits, the court ruled Wednesday in Appeal of Thomas Phillips.
A 2006 fall from a ladder while removing a tree branch with a chain saw rendered Mr. Phillips a quadriplegic, court records show. Mr. Phillips was removing the tree branch as part of an agreement that in exchange for work, his rent on a trailer he lived in would be reduced.
One witness also reported that it seemed a tree branch may have snapped in half, causing Mr. Phillips to lose his balance and fall. After the accident, he was taken to a hospital, where his blood alcohol content was found to be .27, the court record states.
The New Hampshire Compensation Appeals Board eventually ruled against providing Mr. Phillips workers comp benefits because he was intoxicated at the time of injury, among other reasons.
On appeal to New Hampshire's Supreme Court, the claimant did not dispute that he was intoxicated when injured. Instead he argued that the property owners did not prove, nor did the appeals board find, that his intoxication caused his injury, “in whole or in part.”
In considering the case, the Supreme Court said it was concerned because the appeals board focused only on whether the claimant was intoxicated and the appeals board failed to review whether intoxication contributed to the injury.
“Our concern on this score is heightened by the fact that there were no witnesses to the accident and that there was evidence the accident may have occurred as a result of the tree branch snapping while the petitioner was attempting to cut it,” the high court said.
But the court also found that the property owners were unaware that Mr. Phillips was intoxicated at the time of his injury, and New Hampshire law provides that an intoxication defense is not available if an employer knew their employee was drunk.
Therefore, the court said that an intoxication defense is available in this case if causation can be proved. It remanded the case for the appeals board to address whether the claimant's intoxication caused his injury.