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By Sheena Harrison
Jan. 12, 2012
A man’s regular marijuana use likely contributed to an explosion that burned him and a colleague, according to an Arkansas Court of Appeals decision that denied workers compensation benefits for the employee.
Greg Prock was working for Bull Shoals Landing marina in November 2007 when he and co-worker Matt Edmisten were asked to remove the tops of two empty oil barrels. Prock previously had been told to use a pneumatic air chisel for the task to avoid creating sparks that could ignite the oil, according to testimony from the marina’s co-owner.
However, Prock routinely used an acetylene torch to remove the barrel tops, and did so in this instance. One of the barrels exploded, creating a large fireball that set the men “pretty much totally on fire,” according to a co-worker’s testimony.
The men tested positive for illegal drugs after the accident, and the marina’s co-owner said Prock and Edmisten exhibited “suspicious behavior” that morning, court records show. Prock testified that he smoked marijuana three or four times a week after work, but had stopped two weeks before the accident so he could pass a drug test for a potential new employer.
An administrative law judge ruled that Prock’s accident was caused by his “attempt to quickly finish a task,” records show. The judge also said Prock was credible when he said he had not smoked pot the morning of the accident.
However, the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission reversed that ruling. It said that Prock’s credibility was undermined by inconsistencies in his testimony, as well as his boss’ testimony about Prock’s and Edmisten’s behavior.
The appellate court upheld the workers’ comp commission decision Jan. 11. In its majority opinion, the court said Arkansas law presumes that illegal substances caused a workplace accident when evidence of drug use is found.
“It was not incumbent upon Bull Shoals Landing to produce evidence that Prock was impaired prior to the explosion. Rather, once the presumption arose, it was Prock’s burden to prove that the explosion and resulting injury were not substantially occasioned by Prock’s use of marijuana,” the ruling said.
Three of the court’s nine judges dissented to a portion of the opinion. Judge Raymond Abramson noted that Prock had used a torch in the past to open barrels, and said the accident may not have been directly caused by Prock’s past drug use.
“Even if this was not the preferred method—indeed, it was a dangerous method—there is still no direct causal link between the use of drugs and the explosion,” says the dissent, which would have awarded benefits to Prock.
Sheena Harrison writes for Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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