Pennsylvania Court Denies Disability Benefits in Misconduct Case

A Pennsylvania court ruled recently that a worker who had been injured on the job was not entitled to receive total disability benefits after she was later terminated for alcohol-related misconduct. The court's decision in BJ Wholesale Club v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board could affect the ability of other injured Pennsylvania workers to receive workers' compensation benefits when they are terminated for misconduct unrelated to an injury that would otherwise entitle them to benefits.

Workers' Compensation in Pennsylvania

All Pennsylvania employers are required to provide workers' compensation coverage for their employees. Workers' compensation provides medical coverage to workers who suffer work-related injuries or illnesses as well as income replacement benefits for employees whose injuries interfere with their ability to earn as much as they earned prior to their injuries. In addition, workers' compensation provides benefits to the surviving dependents of workers who die as a result of employment-related injury or illness.

Typically, employees in Pennsylvania are eligible to receive workers' compensation benefits for most work-related injuries that are not intentionally self-inflicted unless they are caused by illegal conduct, such as illicit drug use. Thus, even a worker who is harmed by his or her own negligence will typically be able to receive workers' compensation benefits, so long as the conduct was not illegal or intended to cause harm.

Bad Faith Misconduct

In the BJ Wholesale Club case, a store employee had become injured when a customer ran over her foot with a shopping cart. The employee suffered injuries to her foot and toe, but was authorized to return to work with a restriction that she must sit 95 percent of the time. The employer provided the woman with light-duty sedentary work at the same pay she had received prior to the injury.

About a week after the injury, the employee drank heavily on the night before her shift at the store, and was asked to submit to an alcohol test upon arriving at work the following afternoon. She consented to undergo an alcohol test at a nearby hospital, which revealed that she had a blood alcohol content of 0.108. The employer's substance abuse policy, of which the employee was aware, provided that workers found to be under the influence of alcohol on the job could be subject to discipline, including termination.

The employee argued that she did not display signs of intoxication, such as slurred speech or smelling of alcohol. However, the court concluded that the test results established that the employee was under the influence of alcohol regardless of whether she displayed signs of intoxication. Therefore, the court ruled that the employee's violation of the substance abuse policy constituted a lack of good faith on the part of the worker. Because the termination was the result of bad faith misconduct not related to the cause of her injuries, the court ruled that the worker was not entitled to wage loss benefits.

Legal Help for Workplace Injuries

Pennsylvania employees who suffer work-related illness or injury are encouraged to seek legal help from an experienced workers' compensation attorney who will help them understand their rights and work hard to obtain fair compensation for their losses.