Conditions of employment to determine status of worker's claim
Case name: Cyr v. McDermott's, Inc., No. 2008-290 (Vt. 03/05/10).
Ruling: In a 3-2 decision, the Vermont Supreme Court reversed the commissioner of labor's finding that a worker was intoxicated at the time of his injury and that his claim was barred. The court remanded the case for a threshold determination of whether the injury occurred in the course of the worker's employment.
What it means: In Vermont, the positional risk doctrine mandates that an employee's injury arises out of his employment if it would not have occurred but for the fact that the conditions and obligations of his employment placed him in the position where he was injured. Even when an injury occurs away from the workplace, its cause can be distinct in time and place.
An employee for a milk hauling company was severely burned when he accidentally drank a caustic chemical used to clean the trucks. A coworker offered the employee an abandoned bottle of soda which the employee took home. After drinking a few beers, he drank from the bottle and immediately felt burning in his mouth, throat and stomach. He was rushed to the hospital, where his blood work indicated he was intoxicated. The employer argued that his intoxication was a complete bar to any benefits claim.
The Vermont Supreme Court determined the commissioner of labor erred in finding the claim was barred by the intoxication defense because the commissioner failed to initially address whether the employee's injury arose out of and in the course of his employment. The high court determined that the employee was put in a positional risk situation. His injury arose out of his work because his acceptance of the bottle "put the mechanism of injury in motion." It also concluded that he was not intoxicated when he was given the bottle. It remanded for a determination of whether the employee's injury occurred in the course of his employment.
The dissent observed that the facts of the case were "unusual and extreme" and that the case was an example of the adage "[e]xceptional cases must not be permitted to beget bad law."It noted that Vermont's intoxication defense is unique because it completely bars workers' compensation benefits for an injury that is caused "by or during" the employee's intoxication, rather than requiring a causal connection like most states. The dissent argued that the majority ignored the "during" aspect of the law, as the employee's injury was caused by drinking from the bottle when the employee was drunk.
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April 26, 2010
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