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A woman whose finger was severed while working for a large-scale sewing contractor is not eligible for workers compensation because a drug test in the emergency room proved she had marijuana in her system and she failed to prove her illegal drug use was unrelated to an accident she claimed was caused by her not being trained properly on machinery, an appeals court in Arkansas ruled Wednesday.
The employee had been working at Mountain Home, Arkansas-based American Stitchco Inc. for five days in December 2016 when she severed her finger while operating an industrial fabric cutting machine she testified that she had only used for several hours, a piece of machinery she claimed did not have color-coded buttons for safety. Attempting to retrieve fabric that had become stuck, she hit a button she believed to be the “off” button and reached up under a machine guard. In the process of pulling the material free, a blade came down and severed her finger, according to documents in Blair v. American Stitchco Inc., filed in the Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division III in Little Rock.
Upon her treatment in the emergency room the worker tested positive for marijuana, which is legal for medical purposes in Arkansas but not recreationally. She admitted to having smoked marijuana “sporadically” for more than 30 years, mostly on weekends, and that she had last done so about four days prior to the incident. Within a month her employer fired her — stating there was no work for her — and denied her claim on the basis of the state’s rebuttal defense of comp claims based on positive drug tests.
An administrative law judge in 2018 ordered the claim compensable, finding the worker to be “a credible witness and did not find a direct, causal link between the ingestion of marijuana and her injury” and that she “successfully rebutted the statutory presumption created by her positive drug screen and proved that she sustained an injury to her left index finger arising out of and in the course of her employment.”
The Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission in 2019 reversed, stating she did not prove that there was no link between her drug use and her accident, among other findings that questioned the worker’s credibility.
In affirming this earlier ruling, the appeals court stated that “once the evidence was admitted indicating that illegal drugs were in (her) system at the time of the accident, the burden of proof shifted to (the worker), requiring her to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the accident was not substantially occasioned by illegal drugs,” which she failed to do, the three judges unanimously ruled, also stating a lack of credibility in her testimony.
“The record before us contains no scientific or medical expert testimony offered by (the worker) to explain if or how the level of marijuana metabolites in her system might have affected her judgment and actions with respect to the accidental injury,” the ruling states.
The worker in her testimony admitted it was not “best use of judgment” in putting her hand in a machine, subjecting her finger to what the ruling described as “guillotine.” She also “offered no corroborating evidence to support her testimony that she was not properly trained with regard to use of the machines at work,” the ruling states.
Lawmakers in Colorado are considering legislation that would clarify that an employer cannot fire a person who uses marijuana while not at work, according to a bill introduced on Friday and subsequently sent to committee.