Imagine you’re having lunch with your boss and a new client. Everyone has a glass of wine or a cocktail, and you talk about the new account and your projections for the year. Towards the end of the meal, you excuse yourself and head to the restroom. As you are rounding a corner, a picture falls off the wall and lands on your foot, breaking your toe. Your injuries would likely be covered by workers’ compensation since they occurred in the course of your employment. But what if you were under the influence at the time of the injury—even though you had nothing to do with the cause of the accident? Recent changes to Iowa’s workers’ compensation laws could make it difficult or impossible for you to collect benefits.

Workers’ Comp: A No-Fault System

The Iowa workers’ compensation system is designed to compensate employees who are injured on the job. Employers are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance, which pays benefits to injured workers without conducting a lengthy inquiry into the circumstances of the injury or determining fault. Employees, on the other hand, are generally not allowed to file a lawsuit against their employers for work-related injuries. This “no fault” system streamlines the benefits process so that employees can recover more quickly and reliably than by using the civil litigation process.

Exceptions for Intoxication

A traditional exception for workers’ compensation coverage was for injuries an employee sustained as a result of his or her own intoxication. If an employee was in a car accident while she was traveling for work, for example, and the accident investigation determined she was driving under the influence and at fault for the crash, she would not be able to collect workers’ compensation benefits. However, if that intoxicated employee was a passenger in a car driven by a sober colleague (and her intoxication was not a substantial factor in causing the accident), she would be entitled to workers’ comp benefits. An employer contesting an award had the burden of proving to the workers’ compensation board that the worker’s intoxication was a substantial factor in causing his or her injuries (and thus a reason to deny benefits). It was an “affirmative defense” to the presumption that any work-related injury receives benefits.

Recent Changes in the Iowa Workers Comp Law

The 2017 amendments to the Iowa Workers’ Compensation law changed the burden of proof. There is now a presumption that any time an employee was intoxicated at the time of an injury, his or her intoxication was a substantial factor in causing the injury (and benefits should be denied). If an employee has a positive drug or alcohol test at the time of or immediately following the injury, workers’ comp benefits will be denied unless the worker presents evidence that his or her intoxication was not a substantial factor in causing the injury.

Shifting the burden of proof to make an employee prove that drug or alcohol use was not a substantial factor in the injury is especially problematic since many intoxicants can be detected days, weeks, or even months after use. Forcing employees to present evidence that intoxication was not a factor essentially strips the basic “no fault” advantage out of the workers’ comp system. It also may encourage more employers to adopt routine drug testing procedures in an effort to hold down workers’ compensation premiums.

If you’ve been injured at work, an experienced workers’ compensation attorney can help you through the benefits process. Contact us at the Platt Law Firm today for a free, no-obligation consultation to review the facts of your situation and help you figure out whether you are entitled to compensation for lost wages, medical expenses, temporary or permanent disability, or other covered expenses.

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