SANTA FE — The case of a drunken Las Cruces city worker who fell off his garbage truck, then sued and was awarded more than $100,000 in workers' compensation benefits did not move Democrats on a legislative panel.
They blocked a bill late Thursday that would have given judges the flexibility to deny all or most benefits to intoxicated workers who are hurt on the job.
Led by House Speaker Ken Martinez of Grants, Democrats on the House Labor and Human Resources Committee effectively killed the bill.
It was sponsored by Republican Rep. Dennis Roch, but actually was suggested by the New Mexico Court of Appeals because of conflicting state laws on what injury benefits — if any — a drunken worker is entitled to.
Roch, of Texico, said in an interview that he introduced House Bill 139 to clean up the contradictory laws and enable judges to make sound decisions based on the facts of each individual case.
Roch said he took up the cause because of the 3-year-old Court of Appeals decision in which the Las Cruces worker, Edward Villa, essentially was rewarded for driving his garbage truck while intoxicated and then injuring himself.
Villa's case began when he fell off the garbage truck on April 7, 2006. Hospital workers smelled alcohol on his breath. Three hours after Villa was injured, his blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.12, well above the level for a drunken-driving conviction.
He fell off the truck after he and his supervisor tried to free a bin from the truck's hopper.
A workers' compensation judge took note of Villa's drunkenness, but said nobody could prove that it was the sole cause of his injury.
"Worker was working on a very small ledge, and anyone might have slipped off it," the judge stated.
Because of the conflicting state laws, Villa then was awarded 90 percent of the benefits he sought.
A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals said it reluctantly upheld the award.
It wrote this in its decision: “The case highlights the lack of clarity some observers find in the language of several state statutes concerning benefits available for on-the-job accidents when a worker is found to be under the influence of various drugs or alcohol. One 1989 statute bars compensation when an injury is ‘occasioned by the intoxication' of the worker. A related statute, enacted in 2001, says compensation can be reduced by 10 percent if intoxication or the influence of drugs is ‘a contributing cause to the injury.' ”
The appeals court said that, for Villa to lose all his benefits under existing laws, it needed proof that his drunkenness was the only reason for his injuries. That was not established, so Villa was docked 10 percent of his benefits, consistent with the other state law.
Roch said his bill would have ended the contradictions. Judges would weigh the facts on a case-by-case basis, then decide what percentage of benefits a drunken or drugged worker should lose.
The labor committee chairman, Democratic Rep. Miguel Garcia of Albuquerque, said Roch's bill was flawed.
“There were some due process issues with it that were punitive to the worker,” Garcia said in an interview.
Roch said his bill would have made New Mexico a better place for workers.
“What's often forgotten is that this is not just about the drunk driving a forklift. It's about the other 15 people working with him,” he said.
Roch said his reform bill was dead for this session.
After being blocked by the committee, the bill cannot be revived short of extraordinary means. A majority of the full 70-member House of Representatives would have to agree to hear it — an unlikely possibility given opposition from the speaker of the House.
Milan Simonich, Santa Fe bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com