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Tlumac v. High Bridge Stone

July 19, 2006

JAMES E. TLUMAC, PETITIONER-RESPONDENT,
v.
HIGH BRIDGE STONE, RESPONDENT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

In this appeal, the Court must determine whether the statutory defense of intoxication requires that intoxication be the sole cause of an employee's work-related injuries to bar recovery for workers' compensation benefits.

James Tlumac drove a tractor-tailor for High Bridge Stone. In February 2004, he worked 12 days in a row and logged a total of 230 hours. His wife had recently suffered a broken hip, causing him to have more family responsibilities and lose 2 to 3 hours of sleep each night. On February 28, 2004, he worked on the roof of his home while drinking several beers. He had another beer before going to bed around 8:00 p.m. without eating dinner. He woke at 2:15 a.m. the next morning. His wife talked to him as he made coffee and packed lunch for work. She did not notice that he had any trouble talking, standing or walking.

Tlumac drove to his place of work, obtained his paperwork and inspected his tractor-trailer. He left at 3:30 a.m. to make a delivery to Virginia. He drove about 30 miles south on Route 31 and navigated turns, a traffic circle and an exit ramp. The last thing he remembered was driving through a green light and approaching a turn. The officer who responded to the accident scene found that the tractor-trailer had traveled 180 feet off the road, contacted the curb for 80 feet, jumped the curb and traveled 66 feet on the dirt shoulder, hit and rubbed against the guardrail for 247 feet, struck the front bumper of a parked truck, and hit a utility pole before resting against a tree. The officer found Tlumac in the driver's seat, disoriented with head injuries. He detected an odor of alcohol, but found no alcohol in the vehicle. Tlumac told the officer that he had been drinking the night before and that he had fallen asleep at the wheel. Tlumac was admitted to the hospital with multiple injuries, including a broken back and a fractured vertebra in his neck. Tlumac's blood samples had a blood alcohol level of 0.087 at 5:28 a.m. and 0.088 at 7:18 a.m. Tlumac remained hospitalized for 17 days.

On March 19, 2004, Tlumac filed a motion for temporary disability benefits and medical benefits with the Division of Workers' Compensation based on his work-related accident. High Bridge raised the defense of intoxication and presented expert testimony that Tlumac's blood alcohol level at the time of the accident would have been between 0.10 and 0.18. The expert's opinion was that intoxication was the primary cause of the accident. The expert conceded that other factors, such as vehicle speed, roadway conditions, and the driver's mental state and alertness can contribute to accidents. He also acknowledged that sleep deprivation can negatively affect mental and physical performance.

The workers' compensation judge determined that intoxication was not the sole cause of Tlumac's accident and awarded benefits, and the Appellate Division affirmed. The Supreme Court granted certification. The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wallace, Jr.

Argued March 20, 2006

Petitioner James Tlumac was seriously injured in a tractor-trailer accident at work and sought workers' compensation benefits. His employer, respondent High Bridge Stone (High Bridge), asserted the statutory defense of intoxication. The compensation judge found that petitioner's intoxication was not the sole cause of the accident and awarded benefits to petitioner. The Appellate Division affirmed. We hold that the statutory defense of intoxication requires that intoxication be the sole cause of the accident to bar recovery for workers' compensation benefits. Because there was sufficient credible evidence for the compensation judge to conclude that intoxication was not the sole cause of the accident, we affirm.

I.

Petitioner was an experienced truck driver who began working for High Bridge in March 2002. His typical day started around 3 a.m. and ended around 4 p.m. During February 2004, petitioner worked twelve days in a row, logging a total of 230 hours. Early that month, petitioner's wife suffered a broken hip, causing him to incur additional family responsibilities that resulted in his losing approximately two to three hours of sleep each night.

On February 28, 2004, petitioner installed shingles on the roof of his home. The next day, he consumed beer while continuing to work on the roof. Petitioner did not recall how much he drank that day, but his wife testified that he usually consumed about ten beers on a weekend day. After completing the work on the roof, petitioner showered and had a beer. He did not eat dinner before going to bed at around 8:00 p.m.

Petitioner woke at about 2:15 a.m. Monday morning to prepare for work. His wife recalled waking up and talking to him as he made coffee ...


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