Loveland ski worker's widow penalized for man's legal marijuana use

DENVER — A Colorado family is currently being denied half of its workers' compensation benefits because marijuana was found in the system of Adam Lee after he died on the job at the Loveland Ski Area, the Contact7 Investigative team has learned.

Erika Lee’s husband was crushed to death underneath a ski escalator in December of 2017.  

"I'm scared, and I have no idea how we are going to make it,” the widow said during an exclusive interview. "We don't know if we will get any money, so I'm just looking now at how to survive.”   

Toxicology tests after his death determined he had high levels of THC in his system at the time of his death.  

Adam worked as an electrician at Loveland and died while trying to fix an apparent malfunction with the Magic Carpet ski escalator. 

Erika described the incident.

“He got caught on the Magic Carpet, and when the Magic Carpet stopped, they just started it again and again and again — seven times total," Erika said. 

The pain of her losing her husband became magnified months later when she learned the state intended to cut her workers' comp death benefit because of the presence of marijuana in her husband’s system at the time of his death. 

“I am frustrated with the system that is saying because he smoked a legal substance, we are going to take away your benefits from you and your kids,” she said. 

Adam's toxicology report

The toxicology report done shortly after Adam's death showed the ski area worker had high levels of marijuana in his system. 

Testing can detect marijuana in a person’s system several days and even weeks after it was used. But experts have told Contact7 that current science can't determine if Adam was impaired or intoxicated at the time of his death.  

“This is heartbreaking, and I think this should be a message to marijuana consumers in Colorado,” said Brian Vicente, a Colorado attorney who played a major role in the campaign to legalize marijuana in the state back in 2012.

"We voters spoke loudly and said marijuana should not be illegal for adults. Yet we still have some parts of the Colorado revised statutes that appear to penalize people who are using this substance,” he said. 

Colorado law allows state workers' comp companies to cut benefits by 50-percent if tests return positive for marijuana or any other controlled substance. 

“As it stands now, with a positive test result, an employer has the right to reduce those benefits," said John Sandberg, an administrative law judge with Colorado’s Department of Labor.  

Contact7 Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski asked Sandberg: “Following the law right now appears to be a disconnect between another state law that legalized marijuana in our state? 

“You could look at it that way," Sandberg said. "The issue that you're raising Tony I think is a good social issue.  It's one that probably needs to be brought to the general assembly in terms of how this impacts workers.”

The state of Colorado currently has no way of tracking how many other families have been impacted by the legal disconnect that now stands to cost Erika Lee and her children about $800 per month in denied workers' comp benefits. 

Kovaleski also asked Adam Lee’s widow: “How many pot smokers in the state do you think realize they are putting their families at risk?” 

"I imagine none of them do!” she replied.

Erika plans to appeal the decision by Pinnacol, a quasi-state workers' compensation agency, to cut her benefits. A hearing is now scheduled before an administrative law judge in the coming months. 

Pinnacl Assurance, the workers' comp company connected to Erika Lee's case, released the following statement following our story:

“Statements in this story may create the impression that Mrs. Lee has received no payments from Pinnacol Assurance. In fact, the insurer has been paying benefits for a matter of months in accordance with the law.”

Robert Garrison contributed to this story

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