State lawmakers are entitled to deny workers’ compensation benefits to employees who are injured on the job if they are intoxicated, the Arizona Court of Appeals has ruled.
In the first appellate decision on the 8-year-old law, the judges acknowledged that the state constitution guarantees payment for all work-related injuries, no matter whether the employee was at fault.
But Judge Philip Hall said that provision does not bar lawmakers from differentiating between necessary and unnecessary employment risks. More to the point, Hall said, the Legislature can determine that an employee whose intoxication contributed to an incident did not suffer a workrelated injury.
An appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court is expected.
According to court records, Austin Komalestewa was working at Stoneville Pedigree Seed at Casa Grande, tending to a conveyor belt.
When the belt "bogged down,’’ he crawled under it to put pressure on the drum. His right arm became caught in the belt resulting in serious injury.
Komalestewa was hospitalized for two months and has not worked since the incident. He later admitted that on the night prior to his injury he had four drinks with vodka.
A consultant for the employer’s insurance company said notes from the emergency transport team indicated Komalestewa had alcohol on his breath and that there was "documentation in the record’’ that he was treated for "detoxification tremors.’’
Based on blood tests taken the day of the accident, the consultant, a forensic scientist and toxicologist, calculated Komalestewa’s blood-alcohol content at 0.176 at the time of the accident, more than twice the legal presumption for drunken driving. He concluded that the worker’s level of intoxication was a significant contributing factor to the accident.
Komalestewa does not dispute the blood-alcohol finding but said testimony from others at the job site supports his contention that alcohol was not a substantial contributing cause of his injury. But the 1996 law was amended three years later to specifically say that "substantial contributing cause’’ means "anything more than a slight contributing cause.’’
Komalestewa said the law and its amendment are invalid based on the constitutional requirements for workers to be compensated for any workrelated injuries which are cause at least in part "by a necessary risk or danger of such employment.’’
Hall said the key question is whether the risk or danger was necessary or inherent in the employment.
"Employers and taxpayers of this state should not be required to compensate impaired employees who are injured due to their use of alcohol or unlawful use of a controlled substance,’’ Hall wrote.
He said it would be no different if a worker were injured while engaging in "tomfoolery.’’