Affirmative Workers’ Comp Defense: California Law and Intoxicated Employees

Workerscompensation insurance provides no-fault benefits to people who were injured while on the job. An employer can be held responsible for a workplace injury even if the accident was not their fault. That being said, liability is not automatic. There are several affirmative defenses that employers and insurers can raise to deny coverage

An employee injured through serious misconduct, such as intoxication, may not be eligible for benefitsCalifornia law clearly states that workplace injuries caused by employee intoxication are not compensable. Here, our Fresno workers’ defense comp lawyers explain the most important things employers should know about California’s employee intoxication defense. 

California Labor Code: The Intoxication Defense to a Workers’ Comp Claim

Employees have a professional responsibility to follow certain standards and safety practices in the workplace. Among other things, this generally includes a duty to avoid consuming alcohol or other intoxicating substances. Employee intoxication is an affirmative defense listed in the California labor code.  

Under California law (Cal. Lab. Code § §3600(a)(4)), an employee cannot obtain workerscompensation benefits if their injury was caused by their own intoxication. The statute covers both alcohol and the unlawful use of other controlled substances. Employers, claims administrators, and insurers have the legal right to deny workerscompensation benefits to any worker who was injured due to intoxication

Case Law: Intoxication Must be Proximate Cause or Substantial Factor of Injury

While California’s employee intoxication defense may seem relatively straightforward, these cases are often quite complicated. The key issue is that California courts have consistently ruled that employee intoxication must be the proximate cause or substantial factor of the underlying accident or injuries. A proximate cause is a legal cause. Two events must be sufficiently linked for one to be classified as a proximate cause. 

In the 1981 case of Smith v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bdthe court emphasized that a “California employer is required to establish that intoxication is a proximate cause or substantial factor.” In why the injuries happened. In that case, a California court allowed an insurer to deny workers’ comp coverage to an employee killed in a fatal work-related auto accident on the grounds of intoxication

The bottom line: An intoxicated employee injured through no fault of their own may still be eligible for workerscompensation benefits. This is true even if that worker violated their employer’s internal rules. Employers and insurance companies looking to rely on this defense must be prepared to prove both employee intoxication and causation.