LITTLE ROCK — The state Supreme Court on Thursday reversed a decision by the state Workers’ Compensation Commission that denied benefits to two workers who tested positive for marijuana after being injured in an explosion when they tried to open a 55-gallon drum with a blow torch.
In a 5-2 decision, the high court sent the case back to the commission and ordered that benefits be awarded to the two men.
Matthew Edmisten and Greg Prock were severely burned in a November 2007 accident at Bull shoals Landing on Bull Shoals Lake in North Arkansas. The men, who had been ordered by their supervisor to open the drums and had used the blow torch on several others successfully, suffered burns over half their bodies.
Blood tests later at the hospital found marijuana in both men and when they applied for workers’ compensation benefits they were denied.
In their appeal, the men argued there was no evidence that the accident occurred because of the marijuana use and there was no witness testimony suggesting the two were intoxicated because of marijuana on the day of the accident. They also said that they had been following previous practices in cutting the barrels with a blow torch.
Chief Justice Jim Hannah, who wrote the majority decision for Edmisten, and Justice Paul Danielson, who wrote the majority decision for Prock, both agreed with the workers.
Danielson wrote that the evidence to support the commission’s finding that the accident was substantially occasioned by intoxication “is the mere speculation and conjecture that Prock was actually high on the day of the accident and that Prock had at some point shown an alternative method for opening barrels.”
“We cannot say that is substantial evidence, and we do not conclude that reasonable minds could reach the result found by the commission,” Hannah and Danielson said.
Justices Courtney Hudson Goodson and Karen R. Baker dissented in both cases.
“The majority’s opinion represents a significant departure from this court’s traditional review of workers’ compensation cases,” Goodson wrote, adding that the commission’s decision that the workers “failed to meet the burden of rebutting statutory presumption is undoubtedly supported by substantial evidence.”
“In concluding otherwise, a majority of this court fails to adhere to the well-established standard of review, and in doing so, it usurps the authority of the commission to determine the true facts,” she said.
Baker added that there is a statutory presumption of guilt when marijuana is found in a person’s system.
“No other causal link is needed,” she wrote.