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A steamfitter who allegedly got into a car accident because he was drunk is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, even after his employer cut him off.

The Commonwealth Court held that Powell Mechanical was obligated to pay its employee, Robert Braithwaite, medical expenses the company had withheld after it initially learned of his DUI charge.

While Workers’ Compensation Judge Charles P. Lawton had ruled that Powell and its insurance company were on the hook for Braithwaite’s medical expenses, the judge also held that the company was entitled to reimbursement from the workers’ compensation fund for the medical benefits it paid. That ruling was reversed by the Workers’ Compensation Board.

In analyzing the case, the Commonwealth Court cited its previous cases Robb, Leonard and Mulvihill v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Hooper) and Estate of O’Neill. In those cases, as in the current one, according to Commonwealth Court Judge P. Kevin Brobson’s opinion, the employers unilaterally refused or suspended payment of workers’ compensation benefits.

Brobson said that the withholding of benefits violates the Workers’ Compensation Act, and therefore those subsequent payments cannot be reimbursed.

“In this case, employer has not established that it was entitled to reimbursement for the medical expenses it paid in connection with WCJ Lawton’s order granting claimant’s penalty petition,” Brobson said. “Similarly to the employers’ actions in Estate of O’Neill and Hooper, employer unilaterally withheld payment of medical expenses in violation of the act and may not be reimbursed for those payments. It is irrelevant that employer subsequently prevailed on the termination petition because earlier violations of the act may not be excused.”

He added, “Based on the above discussion, we conclude that the board did not err in reversing WCJ Jones’s decision, which granted employer’s application with respect to reimbursement for medical expenses.”

According to the opinion, in April 2003, Braithwaite was out delivering equipment when he stopped at a bar on his way home and drank a number of beers. He left the bar and was involved in a vehicular accident that resulted in him being brought up on drunken driving charges.

After his employer cut off workers’ compensation benefits, Braithwaite filed a penalty petition to the WCJ alleging the employer failed to pay medical benefits. The judge held that Braithwaite was not entitled to benefits because his intoxication was responsible for the accident. That being said, the judge held that because Powell had already issued a notice that compensation was payable, it was obligated to follow through.

Bruce Rende of Robb Leonard Mulvihill in Pittsburgh represents Powell and did not return a call seeking comment.

The Department of Labor and Industry, Bureau of Workers’ Compensation legal department did not respond to a request for comment.