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Can My Employer Deny Workers’ Compensation Benefits If I Take Sleeping Pills?

In theory, workers’ compensation is supposed to provide “no-fault” benefits to employees injured on the job. But Tennessee law makes a special exception if the employee is found to have used drugs or alcohol prior to an accident. If an employer maintains a state-approved “drug free workplace” program, the employee may be denied workers’ compensation benefits.

Law Requires Employee to Prove It Was Not the Drugs

A drug free workplace program allows the employer to force the employee to undergo a drug screening following an on-the-job accident. If the drug test is positive, the law presumes that drug use was “the proximate cause of the injury,” and the employee must provide “clear and convincing evidence” to the contrary. If the employee cannot do so, the employer may deny workers’ compensation benefits and impose additional discipline, up to and including firing the employee for drug use.

It is difficult for the employee to overcome this presumption, as illustrated by a recent decision of the Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel of the Tennessee Supreme Court. In this case, a 19-year employee of a sawmill had a finger amputated after his hand was caught in some machinery. As a result of this injury, the employee’s treating physician determined he suffered a permanent disability of 8 percent to his whole body.

The sawmill maintained a drug free workplace program. In accordance with state law, health care providers administered a drug test to the employee on the day of his accident. The test returned positive for “several medications not prescribed to” the employee. Accordingly, the employer denied the employee’s workers’ compensation claim.

The courts sided with the employer’s decision. The Appeals Panel, affirming a trial judge’s earlier ruling, said the employee failed to overcome the legal presumption that drugs were not the cause of his accident. The Appeals Panel noted the employee presented “no other testimony” besides his own to support his alternative theory of the accident, which was that it was the result of an equipment malfunction. In contrast, medical testimony cited by the employer indicated the drugs found in the employee’s system “were sufficient to negatively affect employee’s cognition, executive function, and the sped of his reaction to stimulus.”

Need Help from a Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Lawyer?

It should be noted the drugs in the employee’s system were not cocaine or heroin, but non-prescribed anti-anxiety and sleeping pills. As far as Tennessee law is concerned, the presence of any drug in a person’s system without a doctor’s prescription is sufficient grounds to deny workers’ compensation benefits. And as the case above illustrates, the law will not cut an employee any slack. Indeed, the drug free workplace law is intended to benefit employers at the expense of employees.

If your employer has a drug free workplace program, you need to be aware of all rules and regulations that apply to you. And if you are injured at work, you should speak with a qualified Knoxville workers’ compensation attorney as soon as possible. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, if you need to speak with someone right away.




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