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Grizzlies and Pot: Key Elements in a Workers’ Compensation Case

Sometimes it is the more out-of-the-ordinary or even sensational stories that really serve to embellish important concepts. Take Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson and Tiger Woods, for instance. Although recent episodes in their lives are most often portrayed for the gaudy media effect they exert on many readers, their tales just as certainly underscore key legal considerations that some people might want and need to be educated about. Division of property in a marriage dissolution proceeding, for example. Child custody where there are accusations of domestic violence.

In that vein, it is noteworthy to point out a recent Montana Supreme Court decision that upheld a man’s right to workers’ compensation benefits following what the Montana Workers’ Compensation Court referred to in the first instance as the man’s “mind-bogglingly stupid” conduct.

Namely, that would have been Brian Hopkins’ decision to get high on pot before feeding the grizzly bears at a private animal park. Although the bears mauled him, the lower court ruled that he was still entitled to recoup $65,000 in medical bills.

That didn’t sit well with the owner of the park, who cited the marijuana use and argued that Hopkins was a volunteer and not a park worker. The Uninsured Employers’ Fund, to which Hopkins initially filed his claim, took another tack, arguing that Hopkins was acting outside the scope of his duties. The Fund denied the claim, which started Hopkins’ journey through the courts.

The Supreme Court agreed with the Worker’s Compensation Court’s take on the marijuana use, finding it irrelevant, given that grizzlies are “equal opportunity maulers” when it comes to humans in close proximity.

The Court also rejected the claim that Hopkins was a volunteer or that he was acting outside the scope of his duties. The latter is an important point and a matter of contention in many workers’ compensation claims.

Hopkins reportedly received a discounted settlement of $35,000. The park owner was fined for his failure to carry workers’ comp insurance.

Workers’ compensation matters can be complex and involve a number of factors. The Montana case, notwithstanding a media propensity to situate it as an entertainment piece, is strong evidence of this. An experienced workers’ comp attorney can help make a material difference in a case involving a worker injured on the job.

Related Resource: “Court: Man mauled after smoking pot gets work comp” March 24, 2011