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Representing the Seriously Injured


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Connecticut's Workers' Compensation Law: 100 Years of Irony


Connecticut Workers Compensation Lawyer - Hartford, New Britain, Waterbury
Hartford's Bond Hotel
Responsible for Fatal
Workers' Comp Accident
Powers v. Hotel Bond Co., 93 A. 245, 89 Conn. 245 (1915)

The Connecticut Workers' Compensation Act was passed in 1913.  Before the act was passed, the only way for someone injured at work to recover compensation was to file a personal injury law suit against the employer.

Filing a personal injury lawsuit in court to be compensated for a job accident was very problematic.  Legally, it was necessary to prove that the employer, through some act of carelessness or negligence, was at fault for the accident.  In a personal injury case, that the employer could raise as a defense that the accident happened because the injured worker was careless or not paying attention.  Another common defense claimed by employers was that the injured employee assumed the risk of getting injured by taking the job.

            In 1913,  the industrial revolution was steaming along (pun quite intended, as steam engines, with their inherent dangers of exploding or causing burns, where quite common).  Factories were dimly lit labyrinths of crowded machinery with uncovered gears, flywheels, belts and mechanized cutting tools whirring along inches from workers hands and feet.

To alleviate the suffering visited upon injured workers, many states, including Connecticut, began to pass workers’ compensation laws that removed questions of fault, contributory negligence and assumption of risk from the determination of when and how a worker who was hurt on the job could be compensated.  These laws were based on the idea that the contract between an employer and worker automatically included a provision that the employer would compensate an injured worker for an accident at work provided that the injury did not arise through the employer’s intentional or willful misconduct.

In 1913, to support himself and help support his mother, John J. Powers worked at Hartford’s five-star Hotel Bond, a brand new, state-of-the-art facility that featured a magnificent ballroom on its top floor.  Mr. Powers, tragically, suffered a fatal accident at work.

This tragic accident would give the Connecticut Supreme Court its first opportunity to review the Workers’ Compensation Act.  In its decision, the court set forth the fundamental principles that 100 years later still underpin Connecticut’s law for compensating employees who are hurt at work.  The court also explained the goals behind the Act.  Unfortunately, given how the workers’ compensation system actually works today, these goals are awash with irony.

First, The Case

After Mr. Powers’s death at his job, his mother filed a workers’ compensation case to be compensated for the loss of the financial support which he had been providing her.  She won the case and the workers’ compensation commissioner awarded her $5 per week for 6 years.

The Hotel Bond Company appealed the workers’ compensation case to the Connecticut Superior Court, which upheld the award.  Hotel Bond then appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court, arguing that the Superior Court should have tried the case all over again, that Mr. Powers’s mother should not get workers’ compensation because she was not his dependent, and that it was wrong for the commissioner to have awarded her the $5 per week.

The Supreme Court upheld the workers’ compensation commissioner’s decision.  In doing so, the justices found that the 6 years of $5 weekly payments was reasonable, noting that the Workers’ Compensation Act stated that the compensation to be paid to the dependents of a worker killed on the job was a minimum of $5 and a maximum of $10 per week.

The justices also ruled that it would make no sense for there to be a whole new trial of the facts during an appeal to the Superior Court; instead, the point of the appeal was to see if the workers’ compensation commissioner had followed the Act and if there were sufficient facts in the case for the commissioner reasonably to have ruled as he did.  The Supreme Court also found that Mr. Powers’s mother could be considered a dependent under the Workers’ Compensation Act.

Now The Irony

The words of the justices:

 The act by eliminating the proof of negligence, by minimizing the delay in the award, and by making it reasonably certain, seeks to avoid the great waste of the tort action, and to promote better feeling between workman and employer, and accepts, as an inevitable condition of industry, the happening of accident, and charges its cost to the industry.

The reality:

Workers’ Compensation cases in Connecticut can and often do go on for years.  It usually takes several weeks to schedule a hearing.  Most hearings are “informal,” meaning that they are simply a negotiating session supervised by the workers’ compensation commissioner.  The parties often follow the recommendations of the commissioner at these informal hearings, but they are not required to do so.

To decide a workers’ compensation case, a commissioner has to take evidence at a “formal” hearing.  These are scheduled infrequently and far into the future.  The reason:  Connecticut has about 1.8 million persons in the labor force and there are only 16 commissioners to handle all the cases of persons who are hurt on the job.

The workers’ compensation system hardly fosters good feelings between a worker and employer.  Insurance rates go up when persons are hurt on the job so employers often try to keep injured workers from making claims.  Even if a employer is sympathetic to an employee hurt on the job, it is not the employer who usually controls the compensation process but the insurance company.  (Some larger employers are self-insured for workers’ compensation claims, but they are usually very difficult to deal with because every dollar paid on a claim is a dollar off the bottom line.)

            Economists would argue that industry bears cost of work accidents.  Companies simply pass on their premium costs onto the consumer.  Companies also join together to lobby the state legislature to reduce the benefits paid to injured workers.  During the last significant reform of the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Act, which took place in the 1990’s, the amount paid to workers for permanent disability was reduced by approximately one-third.  That reform also limited the commissioners’ power to award benefits after injured workers are paid for permanent disability.

The words of the justices:

[The Workers’ Compensation Act’s] procedure contemplates a speedy investigation and hearing by a commissioner without the formalities of a court and without, as a general rule, the employment of an attorney. It attempts to improve the condition of the workman under modern methods of industry by giving him partial recompense for an injury, with a result more certain and speedy and less expensive than under the former method in tort litigation.

The reality:

            Investigations of a workers’ compensation case are hardly speedy, especially, as if often the case, a workers has previously been hurt in a car accident or other personal injury case or has a prior or subsequent job accident.  Investigation often involves sending workers to a series of doctors for opinions as to what accident caused the employee’s injury or disability.  Oftentimes, these doctor’s visits have nothing to do with making the injured worker better but only serve to push around the finger of blame for the injury.

            While it is not necessary to have an attorney for a workers compensation case, it also is not necessary to go to the dentist to deal with a toothache.  Which might be more painful    to pull your own tooth or to handle your own workers’ compensation case    is an open question.  The Act is several hundred pages long.  The workers’ compensation law has deadlines that if missed can mean the end of a case for the injured worker.  The Act itself is complex and this is compounded by the fact that decisions from the appellate courts and the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Review Board often significantly alter the law.

            Although far from perfect, the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Act often does provide injured workers with the ability to recover financially, at least in part, from their injuries.  The best course of action:  stay alert and work safely to lessen your chance of getting hurt at work.