DWI Crash Benefits

Justices OK benefits for trucker hurt in DWI crash
Thursday, July 20, 2006 BY ROBERT SCHWANEBERG Star-Ledger Staff

A drunken truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel can collect
workers’ compensation benefits for the injuries he suffered when his
tractor-trailer went off the road, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled
yesterday.

The high court reaffirmed a 70-year-old rule that intoxication must be
the “sole cause” of an acci dent in order to deprive an employee of
workers’ compensation benefits.

The justices unanimously agreed with two lower courts that the truck
driver’s arduous schedule and lack of sleep “could have caused anyone,
even someone who was not intoxicated, to fall asleep or even just ‘drift
off’ for long enough to lose control.”

The ruling outraged the lawyer for the trucker’s employer, High Bridge
Stone.

“This is a guy who was home all weekend and he came to work drunk,”
Bridgewater lawyer Robert Golden said. “In my view, the Legislature needs
to take a very strong look at this.”

The ruling allows James Tlu mac, 53, formerly of Lebanon, to collect
workers’ compensation benefits for the injuries he suffered in 2004. The
amount of benefits will be determined at a future hearing.

“We’re extremely pleased with the decision,” said Somerville lawyer
Craig Voorhees, who argued the case for Tlumac. He added that Tlumac, who
has moved to Pennsylvania, is “totally disabled.”

“This was his only real avenue to secure medical treatment,” Voorhees
said. “We’re glad the court did the right thing.”

Golden called the ruling “an unfortunate extension of a trend that
relieves individuals for responsibility for their own actions.”

According to the ruling by Jus tice John Wallace Jr., Tlumac had
worked 12 days in a row before hav ing a free weekend, which he spent
roofing his house. As usual on weekends, he drank beer, typically 10 a
day, according to an appeals court ruling.

At 3:15 a.m. Monday, March 1, 2004, he reported for work and inspected
his flatbed tractor-trailer, loaded with 77,000 pounds of Bel gian block
destined for Virginia. He had gone about 30 miles south on Route 31 when
his truck went off the road in Hopewell Township and struck a utility
pole and tree.

A police officer who arrived at the scene at 4:14 a.m. found Tlu mac
disoriented with head injuries. At the hospital, a blood sample taken at
5:28 a.m. showed a blood- alcohol content of 0.087 percent. The law
lowering the legal limit to 0.080 percent had taken effect five weeks
earlier.

Tlumac pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated and had his license
suspended for three months, Voorhees said. He said the motor vehicle laws
punish drunken drivers, while the workers’ compensa tion law pays
benefits to workers injured on the job.

In yesterday’s decision, Wallace said a worker injured on the job is
generally entitled to collect benefits “regardless of fault.” Although
there are exceptions for drunken ness and intentionally self-inflicted
injuries, “the Legislature intended workers’ compensation benefits to be
denied only if intoxication was the sole cause of an employee’s
work-related injuries,” he wrote. He added that state courts have
interpreted the law that way for seven decades.

Wallace acknowledged that rule “may no longer comport with cur rent
policies aimed at deterring the dangers of drinking and driving.
Nevertheless, any change in that interpretation must come from the
Legislature.”

Robert Schwaneberg covers legal issues. He may be reached at rschwa
neberg@starledger.com or (609) 989-0324.

Source: http://www.nj.com

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