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Workers' compensation ruling in another state could set precedent

The attitude toward marijuana has shifted tremendously in the United States over the course of the last decade. More states are allowing the use of medical marijuana for health purposes with some even allowing it for recreational use. However, changing state laws can create legal questions regarding workers' compensation benefits. A recent ruling in another state could provide those in other areas of the country -- including North Carolina -- guidance regarding whether an employee injured in a work accident who tests positive for marijuana should receive workers' compensation benefits.

The ruling involved an accident that happened in 2017 at Berry Plastics Corp. An employee is said to have been attempting to repair a machine when another worker activated it. As a result, the first worker's hand was crushed. Because a drug test indicated that the man had recently smoked marijuana, Berry Plastics questioned whether the injured worker was actually at fault.

The man's co-workers testified that he did not appear to be impaired, and the man claimed that he had smoked the night before and was no longer under the influence of the drug at the time of the accident. Because a judge ruled that Berry Plastics had not proved that the man was impaired, workers' comp benefits were approved; the decision was reversed by the Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Commission. The employee appealed to the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals, which ruled that the commission "went beyond its duty;" the appeals court determined that the issue was not whether there was an "intoxicating substance" in the man's blood, but whether the substance caused the accident.

As many states are passing laws allowing the recreational and medicinal use of marijuana -- and many others are attempting to pass legislation to allow it -- the question of it in the workplace will likely arise again. Some employers in North Carolina and across the country may question whether an employee who tests positive for an "intoxicating substance" should receive workers' compensation benefits, even when it appears that the accident was not the worker's fault. However, cases such as this may provide clarity.

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