Why Workers’ Compensation Differs from Personal-Injury Claims
We have previously written about how workers’ compensation claims differ from personal-injury claims in Illinois. Three of the biggest differences are that:
- An injured worker doesn’t have to prove that his or her employer was at fault in causing the employee’s injury. In a personal-injury case, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant was at fault in causing the plaintiff’s injury.
- An injured worker normally can’t sue his or her employer, but must rely on the workers’ compensation system to resolve the claim.
- Personal-injury plaintiffs can recover for pain and suffering and other types of damages that aren’t available to a workers’ compensation claimant.
When you read that post, you may have wondered why there’s a special system for workers’ compensation that is so different from what would otherwise be available? In this post, we’re going to answer that question.
Employees’ Personal-Injury Claims Before Workers’ Compensation Laws
Illinois and most other states first enacted workers’ compensation laws in the 1910s. Before then, injured workers had to rely on filing a personal-injury lawsuit to recover from their employers. But there were several issues with using personal-injury concepts in the workplace context:
- The Need to Prove Fault. To recover against his or her employer, an injured worker had to prove that the employer was at fault in causing the injury. If fault couldn’t be proven, the employee would recover nothing, despite spending time and money pursuing the claim.
- Contributory Negligence. Even if the injured employee could prove the employer’s fault, the employer could still win by proving that the employee was also at fault. Recall that this was an age when even a little bit of negligence by the plaintiff would bar recovery. (See our recent post on The Blame Game in Court for more on that subject.)
- The Fellow-Servant Doctrine. Another defense that employers often raised was the fellow-servant doctrine. Under this doctrine, an employer could reduce or eliminate an injured worker’s recovery if the employer could show that another employee was at fault in causing the injury.
- Assumption of the Risk. Finally, employers could argue that employees assumed the risk of injury by coming to work despite knowing of the risks involved. Assumption of the risk was another legal doctrine that could bar recovery by an injured worker.
These features of the normal personal-injury process made it difficult for an injured worker to recover against his or her employer. On the other hand, employers—even those that won in court—still had to endure the expenses and uncertainties of litigation to resolve employees’ claims. In short, both employees and employers had something to gain from a change in the law.
The Workers’ Compensation Trade-off
To address these issues, states began enacting workers’ compensation laws. These laws featured an important trade-off: Injured workers would be entitled to recover something for their injuries without having to prove the fault of their employers, and employers would be protected from lawsuits by their employees.
This trade-off benefited workers by guaranteeing some recovery for their on-the-job injuries. It benefited employers by protecting them from the uncertainties and costs of litigation.
It also benefited each group in another way. Because the amount of recovery was limited, it was easier to determine the appropriate level of workers’ compensation insurance coverage for a business. And, because the law required employers to obtain such insurance, workers could be confident that if they were injured, there would be sufficient funds to pay what they were entitled to.
In short, the concepts of personal-injury law didn’t fit well in the context of an employment relationship. States recognized the weaknesses of the old system and created a new one to address them. And that’s why, more than a century later, workers’ compensation is so different from other personal-injury claims.