New Hampshire Court Outlines Drunk Defense in Workers’ Comp Claims

By LYNNE TUOHY | August 22, 2013

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has ruled that intoxication must be determined to be the cause of an accident for it to be a defense against a workers’ compensation claim.

The court sent Thomas Phillips’ case back to the state Compensation Appeals Board for a finding on whether his intoxication caused him to fall from a tree while cutting a branch and suffer injuries that left him a quadriplegic.

Phillips received a break in his rent from his landlords and next-door neighbors – Norman and Diane Crocker of Danville – in return for doing maintenance work around both houses.

When he was hospitalized after the 2006 fall, his blood alcohol content was 0.27, more than three times the legal limit to drive.

A Department of Labor hearing officer awarded Phillips benefits, but the Compensation Appeals Board reversed that ruling in 2010, saying Phillips was drunk. But the board failed to specifically say that Phillips’ intoxication was the cause of his fall and injuries.

“The CAB may have erroneously believed that the petitioner’s intoxication alone was the enough to deny him benefits,” Justice James Bassett wrote, in the unanimous ruling released Wednesday. “Our concern on this score is heightened by the fact that there were no witnesses to the accident and that there was evidence the accident may have occurred as a result of the tree branch snapping while (Phillips) was attempting to cut it.”

Phillips’ lawyer, Michael Mortimer, declined to comment on the ruling.

Phillips also argued that the Crockers should have known he was intoxicated because they knew he was an alcoholic and that he usually drank while working. But the court said the law precludes employers from using an intoxication defense only if they had actual knowledge the claimant was drunk at the time of an accident.

“There is competent evidence in the record to support the CAB’s finding that the Crockers did not know (Phillips) was intoxicated at the time of the injury,” the court ruled. It noted that on the day Phillips was injured, the Crockers greeted him briefly and did not see him drinking or exhibiting signs he was intoxicated.

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