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A BIT OF H I S TO RY
WORKERS’ COMPENSATION AND AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
On the Fourth of July, we celebrate our nation’s independence. Personally, I view Independence Day as a day to celebrate not just the success of the American Revolution, but everything that came after as well. We have been able to develop a lot of great changes since the days of our Founding Fathers, and workers’ compensation is a prime example of that. When the Founding Fathers were creating laws for the new United States, they wisely put the jury system in place. This system could help with most cases, but at the time, they didn’t have any frame of reference for dealing with injured employees. After a while, it became clear there were problems with leaving these matters to a jury. In those days, if you got hurt while on the job, you had the right to sue your employer and claim compensation to help pay for medical bills. Unfortunately, the jury system meant the injured worker had to prove their employer was at fault and directly responsible for their injuries. The reality is, more often than not, the employer isn’t at fault at all; it was just a terrible accident. However, just because it was an accident, that didn’t mean the worker wasn’t still severely injured and unable to support themselves and their family anymore.
When juries did rule in favor of the employee, businesses often had to declare bankruptcy and were completely wiped out because they could not afford to pay for the medical bills. This also wasn’t good, because it meant businesses were going under, and other workers would lose their jobs whenever an employee got seriously hurt. Around the previous turn of the century, we started to see U.S. Government enact laws to protect federal workers. One such act was the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), which is a United States federal law protecting railroad workers injured on the job. During my first 10 years as a lawyer, I became very familiar with FELA in my work with railroaders. FELA and similar acts protecting federal workers ultimately inspired states to pass workers’ compensation laws to help all employees. Rather than force businesses to close down, or leave injured employees to suffer without aid, state legislators began to come up with laws that found a compromise. They realized the jury system didn’t work in cases where employees were hurt on the job. Instead, they developed workers’ compensation laws, which meant injured employees did not have to prove their employer was at fault to receive benefits.
This made the process a lot easier, but as part of the compromise, there are limits to how much in benefits a worker may receive. For example, in Virginia and North Carolina, an injured employee can only receive 500 weeks of paid benefits; though, if you’re a North Carolina employee and you can prove you have a loss of earning potential at 425 weeks, you can get an extension for benefits beyond the 500-week limit. Workers’ comp is far from perfect, and it’s complicated. Confusing laws can make cases difficult to navigate alone. But just having these laws has helped countless American injured workers reclaim their lives over the years, and that is something worth celebrating. Happy Fourth of July! – Joseph Miller
If you belong to a union or other labor-related group and want to schedule my presentation at your group’s speaking arrangement, you can do so by calling 888-694-7994 . The presentation is free of charge, offers important information for taking appropriate action in Virginia workers’ compensation cases, and everyone in attendance gets a free copy of my book, “10 Traps and Lies that Can Ruin Your Virginia Workers Compensation Case.” Education is the best way to protect yourself from making a mistake, so call now before it’s too late.
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