How big is the problem? A study published in 2011 summarized the state of workplace injury and illness:
- 23,000 on-the-job injuries in the United States every day
- Annually, that amounts to 8.5 million injuries
- Total cost of those injuries is estimated at $192 billion
- Almost 2.5 million of those injuries resulted in some missed work days
- 5,000 of those injuries resulted in death
Those death figures were just from specific, discrete injuries. When deaths from workplace-caused illness were added in, the total number of work-related deaths exceeded many other causes that get considerably more media attention:
- 59,102 deaths from occupational illness and injury
- 43,945 deaths from motor vehicle crashes
- 40,970 from breast cancer
- 29,093 deaths from prostate cancer
- 18,361 deaths from and homicide
After adding the direct medical costs of occupational injury and illness to their indirect costs, the study found that the combined total was “at least as large as” the costs associated with cancer. The states’ workers’ compensation programs combined covered only about a quarter of those costs.
Recovery for Workplace Injuries; Workers’ Comp Barrier
Workplace injuries are, like injuries in all other contexts, caused by something. In many cases, that something is negligence. Unlike in other contexts, injured workers are, for the most part, barred from suing their employer for negligence, by the explicit terms of the state’s workers’ compensation law.
Workers’ compensation laws usually provide that recovery under that program is the sole remedy that an injured employee has against the employer, and Alabama follows this “exclusive remedy” rule. Any worker who toils for an employer subject to the state’s workers’ compensation law—and most workers do–and who is injured while working, can’t sue the employer for negligence and recover tort damages. You get to collect workers’ comp benefits, and as far as the employer’s liability goes, that’s the end of it.
Unfortunately, the workers’ compensation benefits frequently don’t cover the injured employee’s actual losses. You can’t sue the employer; is there something you can do?
The answer can be very tricky and technical. It helps a lot to have the assistance of an experienced workplace injury lawyer to guide you through hazy line that separates the workers’ compensation world from the tort lawsuit world where you may obtain full compensation for our losses.
Willful Conduct Exception to Exclusivity
Alabama’s workers’ compensation law provides a willful conduct exception to the exclusive remedy rule. The law specifically says that an employee who suffers injury or death “shall have a cause of action” against any of the employer’s other employees, agents or officers whose “willful conduct” was the cause of the injury or death. The term “willful conduct” is generally defined in the law to include:
- A purpose, intent or design to cause another person injury
- Willfully and intentionally removing a machine safety guard or device that the manufacturer has provided, if the person removing it knows that injury or death would be the likely or probable result (provided that the removal did increase the danger and wasn’t done for repair or improvement)
- A fellow employee’s intoxication if that employee’s wrongful conduct was the proximate cause of the injury or death
- Willfully and intentionally violating the employer’s written and specific safety rule after written notice
Third Party Suits Are Also Allowed
Alabama law does allow injured workers or their dependents to sue any negligent party other than the injured person’s employer, as long as the negligent party also caused the injury. These are third party, suits in the sense that they involve someone in addition to the employer and employee.
In essence, if the injury is work-related, but there is some person or entity other than the employer and fellow employees who was at the work site, or whose products or property was at the work site, and is legally responsible for causing the injury, the injured worker can sue for whatever tort damages are available under the circumstances. Those damages could, under some circumstances, include pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of consortium, and many other elements of compensation unavailable in workers’ comp proceedings. And there is a right to a jury trial.
The very nature of a third party suit means that these lawsuits will primarily be available for injuries at work sites where multiple entities are present. Common examples of third parties include:
- Subcontractors at construction, industrial and similar sites
- Owners of property on which construction and repair work are being performed
- Visitors to work sites
- Manufacturers of equipment, tools, and machinery used at the work site
Suits for Industrial Accidents/Injuries
Industrial accidents in the modern world can be truly catastrophic, like the toxic incident in Bhopal, India, which caused the deaths of thousands. While those incidents generate most of the headlines about industrial accidents, most accidents at industrial sites are of a smaller scale. These smaller accidents often involve a single worker at the site, and often involve ordinary accidents like falls and being hit by heavy objects.
Industrial work sites often have employees of more than one employer on the site at a given time. For example, a chemical treatment plant may have a constant flow of truck deliveries from other companies, occasional visits from manufacturing representatives to check the calibration of machines supplied by the manufacturer, and a constant presence of security officers employed by a different company. If an employee of any one company is injured by the actions of an employee of any of the other companies, or by a defective product manufactured by someone other than the immediate employer, a third party suit can be brought.
Needless to say, untangling the various employment relationships at an industrial work site, and establishing exactly who and what caused the injury, is usually a complicated process that involves more than one field of law. Having an attorney with considerable experience in Alabama workplace injury cases can be invaluable. Call Drake Law Firm today for a free consultation.