January 3, 2013

The Effect of Intoxication in Iowa Work Comp Cases


Happy New Year to everyone. The traditional forms of celebrating the start of the new year got me thinking about the role intoxication plays in Iowa Workers' Compensation cases.

It also gave me an excuse to post this picture of my dog Bub from a New Year's Eve party from several years ago. Bub is more cooperative than his sister Moosey when it comes to photographs. He wore the hat willingly, and never complained that he did not get to actually drink any beer.
Bub on New Year's Eve.JPG
The general rule regarding work comp and alcohol is set out in Iowa Code Section 85.16(2) which provides that a worker injured on the job will not be entitled to receive workers' compensation benefits if the injury was caused:

"By the employee's intoxication, which did not arise out of and in the course of employment but which was due to the effects of alcohol or another narcotic, depressant, stimulant, hallucinogenic, or hypnotic drug not prescribed by an authorized medical practitioner, if the intoxication was a substantial factor in causing the injury."

The most common situation in which this rule comes into play to bar work comp benefits is when an employee comes to work under the influence of drugs or alcohol they consumed on their off time, and the employee ends up getting injured at work at least in part because of their intoxication.

Like most areas of Iowa Work Comp law there are exceptions to the general rule. As the statute sets out, if the intoxication was the result of prescribed medication the employee could potentially still recover benefits.

A second area involves traveling employees. In many situations traveling employees are treated differently under Iowa Workers' Compensation law. The general reason for this different treatment is that the traveling employees are considered to be in the course of their employment from the time they leave their home until they return home at the end of the trip. Vandarwarka v. Pro Environmental Abatement, Inc., File No. 1303751 (Appeal Decision, May 23, 2002) is an example of such case. In Vandarwarka an asbestos abatement crew was on the road for an extended period of time to work on a project. The crew had finished work for the day and had returned to the motel bar to drink beer and play pool. A co-worker of Mr. Vandarwarka drank to the point that he passed out briefly. When the co-worker woke up he attacked and injured Mr. Vandarwarka without any reason or provocation. The Iowa Workers' Compensation Commissioner found that Mr. Vandarwarka was entitled to receive workers' compensation benefits under the traveling worker doctrine despite the defense argument that the crew had finished work for the day and were engaging in recreational drinking at the time of the injury.

Another exception involves situations where drinking is part of an employee's job. 2800 Corporation v. Fernandez, 528 N.W.2d 124 (Iowa 1995) involved a night club with exotic dancers. As part of their duties the dancers were required to socialize with the customers and motivate the customers to buy them drinks. Each dancer had a quota of two drinks per hour. The dancers were not required to actually drink the alcohol the customers were paying for. However, management encouraged the dancers to actually drink alcohol, and most dancers had six to eight alcoholic drinks per night.

Ms. Fernandez was in a collision while driving home after work that was caused by her intoxication from drinking at work. Ms. Fernandez was seriously injured in the collision and a co-worker who was a passenger was killed.

The Court found that since her intoxication was the result of part of her understood job duties that she was entitled to receive work comp benefits.

The same reasoning that led to the award of benefits in Fernandez could also apply to salespersons who are expected to wine and dine clients.

However, the best practice is to avoid mixing alcohol and work.