State laws that address employees who are hurt while working are usually called workers compensation laws. Before these laws were written, a worker hurt at work would file a traditional lawsuit against their employer to receive payments for their injury. These lawsuits were challenging because the courts weren’t always persuaded that an employer’s negligence caused the worker’s injury. If a court did find for an employee, the employer would be ordered to pay “make whole” damages to the worker. Easing this legal system was the purpose of workers compensation.
Both employers and workers disliked this system. Workers struggled to prove employer fault to conservative courts. Employers did not like the monetary awards made to employees that might require lifetime payments to an injured worker.
As such, both parties demanded that state governments create a new system for resolving these issues, and workers compensation laws were born. The new laws completely replaced the earlier system and are now only means for an injured worker to seek monetary damages.
As workers compensation laws are state laws, they vary across the country. But generally, the laws have five requirements. Only certain employers and employees are covered. There must have been an injury. That injury must have been the result of an accident. The accident must have arisen out of the employment relationship. And the accident must have occurred in the course of the employment relationship.
Many employers and workers are covered by state workers compensation laws. Various states exclude different occupational classifications (like household employees) or whole industries (like agricultural companies or government). And some exclusions are made based on company size, not including employers with less than three workers for example.
All states require a physical injury. Physical being the requirement.
The accident element ties the injury to a specific one-time event. This element has caused significant debate as the nature of most workplaces has changed. Originally, the laws envisioned more traditional, hands-on careers. But as the working world has changed, new conditions have arisen in the workplace. States have addressed these changes differently. Some now include occupational illnesses and diseases within their-their laws (such as an accidental HIV transmission in a hospital). Others have added repetitive stress injuries, addressing ergonomic issues and carpal tunnel disease.
For the injury to have arisen out of employment, states require a connection between the injury and the risky nature of the employment. The stronger the connection, the more likely this element will be met. To illustrate, it is unlikely that a doctor would have a limb from a tree fall and hit him on the head at work. It is far more likely for the same injury to happen to a logger, and therefore, his injury would occur more likely to have arisen out of employment.
The “in the course of” requirement addresses the where and when of the injury. Workers compensation statutes look at if the employee was working when injured (based on a time card for example). But some situations might require additional evidence in case the injury happened outside of the normal work context.
If all of the elements are proven, the worker will receive compensation based on set amounts established by the state’s statute.
Because of the subjectivity of some of the above areas, the goal and purpose of workers compensation to expedite recovery and curtail lawsuits has not been met. As such, an injured worker or an employer of an injured worker should seek legal advice for their specific worker’s compensation questions. Only an attorney fully admitted to your state’s bar can give you appropriate and competent legal advice.