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Despite testing positive for marijuana, an employee still may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits if the banned substance did not contribute to his injuries, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled.
In November 2011, Vincent James Hogg Sr., an employee of the Oklahoma County Juvenile Detention Center, sustained neck and shoulder injuries while subduing a belligerent inmate. Hogg reported the injuries four days later and immediately took a drug-screening test per the facility’s policy. The results indicated the presence of marijuana in his system, so the facility gave Hogg a backup test the next day, which also came back positive. Hogg denied having used marijuana but said he had been in the presence of others who were smoking it. Based solely on the positive drug screening, the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Court denied Hogg’s application for benefits.
Hogg disputed the decision, and a local trial court found that although marijuana played no role in Hogg’s injuries, he nevertheless should be denied workers’ compensation benefits. In doing so, the court cited a state statute that it said precluded workers’ compensation in cases where injured employees tested positive for drugs or alcohol or refused to submit to testing.
Arguing that the trial court misinterpreted the meaning of the statute, Hogg appealed to Oklahoma’s Supreme Court. Specifically, Hogg asserted that the statute made an exception for employees who, despite testing positive for intoxicants, could show, as he did, that the drug in question did not cause their accidents or injuries. After engaging in a lengthy examination of the statute’s language and syntax, the high court agreed. Though workers’ compensation claimants who test positive, or who refuse testing, are presumed ineligible, the court said that such a presumption could be overcome by proof that drugs or alcohol did not contribute to their injuries. Because Hogg already had proved his injuries were not caused by the presence of marijuana in his system, the court remanded the case with instructions to reinstate Hogg’s benefits.
Hogg v. Okla. County Juvenile Bureau, Okla., No. 110890 (Dec. 18, 2012).
Kirk Rafdal, J.D., is a staff writer for SHRM.
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