Intoxicated New Mexico Worker Still Entitled to Workers’ Comp Benefits

December 29, 2010

A New Mexico Court of Appeal has ruled that a Las Cruces city employee who fell off a garbage truck while intoxicated is still eligible to collect workers’ compensation insurance benefits for his injuries.

According to court documents in Edward Villa v. City of Las Cruces, Villa fell from a ledge on a city garbage truck in 2006 when he tried to remove a trash bin that was stuck in the truck hopper. To pull out the bin from the back of the truck, Villa and his supervisor climbed on the truck on opposite sides to attach chains to the dumpster so that a grappler could pull it out. When Villa reached for the chain, he lost his balance, fell and seriously injured himself.

The city argued that on the day of the accident, Villa’s blood-alcohol level was 0.12, over the New Mexico legal driving limit. However, in assessing Villa’s intoxication for the purpose of recovery benefits, the workers’ compensation judge noted that although Villa was intoxicated, his co-worker and supervisor did not notice a problem with Villa’s behavior.

“[T]he fact that workers was inebriated … does not resolve the legal effect of it on his claim for benefits,” the WCJ concluded. Thus, the judge issued a 10 percent penalty for being intoxicated, and said the state had to award the remaining 90 percent of workers’ comp benefits.

The city appealed.

However, the court of appeal agreed with that finding, noting under state law, intoxication must be the sole factor in an accident for someone to be denied compensation.

“While we are not particularly comforted by the approach we take, we are offered and we see no other approach that we can take without stepping on the policy prerogatives of the Legislature,” the court of appeal wrote, commenting on how it arrived at its decision. “in the present case, there was substantial evidence to support the WCJ’s factual determinations relating to willfulness and that she correctly applied the law to the facts.”

The court of appeal affirmed the WCJ’s compensation order in favor of the worker.

To view the case, visit http://www.nmcompcomm.us/nmcases/NMCA/2010/10ca-099.pdf.

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