Workers' Compensation: Injuries Caused by Hazardous Conditions in the Workplace
The purpose of workers' compensation is to create an insurance system that covers workplace injuries, taking the place of the traditional employee-employer lawsuit. Employees have a reliable source of recovery for work injuries and employers do not have to be concerned that they will be sued every time a worker is injured. Workers' compensation is the exclusive remedy in most states even when a worker is injured because of an employer's negligence.
However, most states allow a worker to sue his or her employer, despite the exclusive remedy rule of workers' compensation, when the employer's behavior falls outside the boundaries of traditional employer conduct and causes physical harm to a worker. For example, an employee is almost always allowed to sue if the employer acts intentionally to cause harm to the employee. Intentional acts of harm are called intentional torts and include assault, battery, and false imprisonment. If an employee is battered by his or her employer then, in most states, he or she will be able to sue the employer rather than relying on workers' compensation as the only remedy. When an employer purposefully creates a hazardous environment in the workplace and that hazard injures an employee, it can be akin to a battery.
The Oregon OSHA, a division of the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services, is an agency that studies workplace hazardous conditions, defining them as dangerous objects or defects in work processes. Factors that contribute to the creation of hazardous conditions include materials, machinery, equipment, tools, chemicals, environment, workstations, facilities, people, and workload. Oregon OSHA concludes that hazardous conditions usually result from unsafe behavior that increases risk.
Injuries and occupational diseases caused by working with hazardous materials, if a regular part of the job description and if the hazardous material is handled in the workplace using legal and standard safety procedures, usually fall within workers' compensation coverage. The usual point of departure from workers' compensation and into the lawsuit realm is when there is some evidence of an employer's intent to injure or callous disregard for safety, such as an employer falsifying or withholding information about a toxic substance in the workplace.
The degree to which an employer's harmful behavior has to be more egregious than just negligent to defeat the exclusivity of the workers' compensation remedy varies by state. Violent conduct is almost always outside the workers' compensation system. In some states, some types of excessively dangerous behavior still fall within workers' compensation, such as allowing a dangerous condition to exist. In still other states, higher degrees of negligent behavior - still short of intentional behavior - can trigger the right to sue outside workers' comp, such as gross negligence, willful or wanton misconduct, or willful disregard of physical safety. The bottom line is that your rights inside and outside the workers' compensation system vary widely by state and by the factual situation, so it is extremely important to speak with a knowledgeable lawyer as soon as possible to learn about and preserve your legal rights.
The advantage of being able to sue in court instead of relying on workers' compensation as the only remedy is that the employee can seek whatever legal damages are allowed for the tort involved. This may include punitive damages, designed to punish the wrongdoer above and beyond the actual economic cost of the injury. Workers' compensation, on the other hand, usually just provides compensation for medical bills and lost wages.
An employee should keep in mind that, even if he or she can bring a lawsuit, he or she may not be able to sue and accept workers' compensation benefits. In many states the employee is required to select one remedy or the other and in some states where an employee has received workers' compensation and also sues, the employee may need to reimburse workers' compensation from any lawsuit recovery.
Finally, an employee should be aware that they may have a limited time to bring a legal claim. Since the lawsuit is probably based on the underlying tort the employee must bring their claim within the statute of limitations, or before expiration of the legal deadline, for torts in the particular state.
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