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Alcohol in blood precludes compensability of severe injuries

Posted On: Dec. 12, 2019 1:44 PM CST

car accident

The severe injuries sustained by a worker in a car accident on the way to the airport are not compensable due to the presence of alcohol in his blood, a three-judge panel of an appellate court held unanimously on Wednesday.

In Papageorge v. Tyson Shared Services Inc., the Arkansas Court of Appeals, Division III in Little Rock affirmed the decision for the Arkansas Workers Compensation Commission to deny workers compensation to the worker, who became a paraplegic in the accident. 

Jason Papageorge brought a workers compensation claim against his employer, Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson Shared Service Inc., for the neck and spinal cord injuries he sustained in a one-vehicle accident while driving from his house to the airport to attend an out-of-state meeting.

On the night before the accident, Mr. Papageorge and his wife had returned home from their honeymoon, which included four flight legs, and arrived in Arkansas around 8 p.m. Mr. Papageorge had a 4:30 a.m. flight out for work, and after waking late, he failed to negotiate a curve and flipped his car two or three times.

He was transported by ambulance to the hospital and later flown to a different medical facility to undergo neck and back surgery and is now paralyzed below the chest.

A blood draw taken around 9:30 a.m. detected a blood alcohol concentration of 0.11 in Mr. Papageorge’s blood. He admitted to drinking two glasses of wine on the last leg of his flight and a beer and mimosa much earlier in the day, and said he had a couple of beers when he got home while he unpacked and repacked for his flight.

He said when he overslept he was frantically trying to make his flight when he went too quickly around  a curve, and said his error in judgment was driving twice the speed limit around a dangerous curve, and that he had not been impaired in any way by alcohol.

His claim was initially accepted, but later denied by the employer when it was revealed that he had tested positive for alcohol in his blood at the hospital. Paramedics on the scene testified that they did not suspect that Mr. Papageorge was intoxicated, noted that he communicated very clearly and that they did not smell any alcohol.

An administrative law judge found that Mr. Papageorge’s claim was not compensable on the basis that the alcohol in his bloodstream created a rebuttable presumption that the accident was substantially caused by the alcohol, and Mr. Papageorge failed to prove the alcohol was not a substantial contributor to the accident. The Arkansas Workers Compensation Commission affirmed the administrative judge’s findings.

Mr. Papageorge appealed, but the appellate court affirmed the commission’s decision.

The court noted that Arkansas code includes the statutory presumption that where alcohol or drugs are present, an employee is not entitled to compensation unless he or she can prove by a “preponderance of the evidence” that the alcohol or drugs “did not substantially occasion the injury or accident.”

Mr. Papageorge argued that the commission erred in denying his workers comp claim, claiming that he “clearly rebutted the statutory presumption that the accident was substantially occasioned by the use of alcohol” because of the number of witnesses who consistently testified that there was no indication that he was intoxicated or impaired.

The appellate court found that even a low level of alcohol present in a blood test is sufficient to trigger the state’s statutory presumption, and that witnesses were not sufficient to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that alcohol did not substantially cause his accident and subsequent injuries.