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Lawmakers in southwestern state block bill concerning intoxication and work comp benefits

In a very interesting workers' compensation defense story out of New Mexico, state legislators recently voted down a bill designed to grant judges the ability to deny work comp benefits to intoxicated employees.

The legislation, House Bill 139, would have enabled workers' compensation judges to weigh the facts of every case and then decide the percentage by which the intoxicated employee's work comp benefits should be reduced (up to 100 percent).

More importantly, said sponsor Rep. Dennis Roch, it would have remedied the current contradictory state of the workers comp laws in the Land of Enchantment.

To illustrate, a New Mexico statute passed back in 1989 expressly bars a worker from securing any type of compensation if their injury was caused solely by their intoxication. However, a statute passed in 2001 declares that the work comp benefits of an injured employee can be reduced by up to 10 percent if alcohol or drugs were only a contributing cause of their injuries.

The legislation was likely inspired by a three-year old case involving a Las Cruces sanitation worker who was injured when he fell from a garbage truck in April 2006. Tests administered in the aftermath of the workplace accident revealed that his blood alcohol content was .12, well above the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle in the state.

The man subsequently filed a work comp claim, which the city contested, arguing that his intoxicated state precluded recovery.

The workers' compensation judge ultimately awarded the man 90 percent of his eligible work comp benefits after assessing the aforementioned ten percent penalty. Here, the judge noted that even though the man was drunk, it could not be shown that this was the sole cause of the accident, as the ledge from which he fell was very small and could have tripped up anyone sober or not.

The New Mexico Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the workers' compensation judge based on the same reasoning. However, it also called for the resolution of conflicting work comp laws.

"The case highlights the lack of clarity some observers find in the language of several state statutes concerning benefits available for on-the-job accidents when a worker is found to be under the influence of various drugs or alcohol," read the opinion.

Why then did the New Mexico House Labor and Human Resources Committee refuse to advance the bill?

According to Committee chairman Rep. Miguel Garcia, HB 139 presented several due process issues that were overtly punitive towards workers.

It should be interesting to see if lawmakers in that state take up this matter again in the next legislative session.

Stay tuned for updates from our workers' compensation defense law ...

This post was provided for informational purposes only and is not to be construed as legal advice.

Source:

The El Paso Times, "Democrats block New Mexico bill regarding workers' compensation," Milan Simonich, Feb. 8, 2013

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