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Widow's death benefits reduced because of husband's marijuana use

The widow and children of a Colorado ski worker are facing a cruel reality. The worker, Adam Lee, was crushed to death under a ski escalator at Loveland Ski Area in December 2017. Ordinarily, the worker's dependents would be entitled to the full amount of death benefits prescribed by law, to be paid by the employer's workers' compensation company.

But an autopsy revealed a high level of THC in Mr. Lee's body. The insurance carrier, Pinnacol Assurance, is using this as a means of reducing the amount of death benefits it is paying to Erika Lee, the widow of the dead ski worker. Though Ms. Lee has been receiving monthly payments since the claim was approved, she is receiving $800 per month less than she would had her husband's body not tested positive for marijuana. Since death benefits are paid to a widow or widower for life, the total amount of lost benefits will be considerable over Erika Lee's lifetime.

Erika Lee is currently appealing the case to the Colorado Department of Labor. With the help of an attorney, she may yet receive the full amount of death benefits.

Measuring THC in the body presents some challenges

The Colorado workers' compensation system is a no-fault insurance program. Even when an employee is responsible for a work accident or when the employee's actions contribute to an accident, he or she is still entitled to workers' compensation benefits. However, Colorado law allows an insurance carrier to reduce benefits by up to 50 percent when traces of marijuana or any other controlled substance are present in the worker's body at the time of the accident.

But there are two big problems regarding marijuana that toxicologists have yet to solve:

  • THC, the psychoactive chemical found in marijuana, can stay in a person's system for days or even weeks after it is ingested.
  • When traces of THC are found in a person's body, there is no way to determine whether the worker was really impaired at the time of the accident.

Until the Colorado Legislature addresses this issue, injured workers who have indulged in marijuana will continue to face the possibility that their work comp benefits could be reduced.

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