Positive marijuana tests don't always prevent workers' comp benefits

Posted by Charles Middleton on 01/09/2019

Q: A recent Oklahoma court ruling allowed an employee to receive workers' compensation benefits despite a positive drug test. Could you tell us more about this case and the ruling?

A: In this recent case, an employee tested positive for marijuana after he was injured when he attempted to help a co-worker dislodge a piece of plastic that was stuck in a machine. The employee filed for workers' compensation benefits. The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals held that there was sufficient evidence to allow the employee to receive workers' compensation benefits. The court noted that, although the employee tested positive for marijuana within 24 hours of his injury, he rebutted the presumption that the injury was caused by the drug by showing that he was not intoxicated at the time of the injury. 

Q: Does this ruling change any existing laws in Oklahoma?

A: No, the law has not changed. In Oklahoma, if any employee tests positive for intoxication, an illegal controlled substance, or a legal controlled substance used in contravention to a treating physician's orders, there is a rebuttable presumption that the workplace injury was caused by the use of the substance and workers' compensation benefits will be denied. However, the injured employee can overcome the presumption by proving that the “state of intoxication had no causal relationship to the injury.” In this case, the court noted that “[t]he presence of an intoxicating substance in the blood does not automatically mean the person is intoxicated.” The employee had testified that he used marijuana the night before the injury, but he was not intoxicated by the time he arrived at work. In support, the employee testified that he drove to work, attended a safety meeting, spoke with a supervisor and other employees and operated his own machine for two hours before assisting his co-worker — all without incident or allegation of intoxication. Because the employer could not offer any evidence to show that the employee was or appeared to be intoxicated at the time of the injury, the court held that there was sufficient evidence to show that the marijuana use did not cause the injury. 

Q: What should employers learn from this ruling, particularly as it relates to medical marijuana?

A: The facts of this case actually predate the implementation of Oklahoma's medical-marijuana laws, but the court nonetheless recognized the legitimacy of these laws by noting that if the employee had used medical marijuana consistent with state law, the “rebuttable presumption would not operate.” However, the guiding principles for employers should remain the same because a medical-marijuana license does not allow an employee to be intoxicated at work. An injury caused by the use of an intoxicating substance does prevent an employee from receiving workers' compensation benefits. However, simply testing positive for a drug does not necessarily mean an employee is intoxicated, and the employee may be able to receive benefits if he or she can show that the injury was not caused by the state of intoxication. Therefore, it remains important for employers to recognize and document signs of intoxication in the workplace because it could affect the outcome of a workers' compensation case by showing that the injury was caused by intoxication.


Published The Oklahoman, January 9, 2019