Our system of justice demands that injured people are entitled to compensation from people who cause the injury. When someone disregards another person’s safety and causes injury to another, the reckless party is responsible for the harm caused by their reckless actions. This system requires proof that someone acted in a way that was unacceptable. (Basically that someone was at fault for the injury.) One dramatic exception to this theory of responsibility appears when a person is injured at work. For these injuries we have a system of laws that fall under the category of “workers’ compensation.” At the most basic level, workers’ compensation removes the burden of an injured person having to prove fault. The idea being that when an employee acts for the benefit their employer, they should not be estopped from making a claim against their employers’ insurance, if they are hurt on the job. After all, who would perform a dangerous job if there was only a small chance that an injury would not leave them in financial ruin?
The Problem with the Protection
While in theory these laws have protected workers from the repercussions of dangerous jobs for decades, some crafty companies within the state of Maryland have attempted to exploit some loopholes. Last year a plant owned and operated by Sea Watch International of Maryland was the site of the death of of a shell-shucking supervisor. To answer the rhetorical question posed above, the most vulnerable workers who take the risk of highly dangerous jobs for very low wages are the same workers who are exploited for their labor - the problem workers’ compensation was designed to remedy. Sea Watch made a few changes after the death of their employee. The employees were asked to sign a waiver verifying that they would not sue Sea Watch should any of them be injured of the job. Instead, the employees are told to go through a third party insurance company called Workforce Unlimited. Many have complained that the company is not covering their expenses after an on-the-job injury.
What is a State to Do?
Along with these waivers, employees are, often unknowingly, signing away their right to have their proverbial day in court. They commit themselves to arbitration, a legal remedy many do not fully comprehend. As a result of the Maryland-based company’s actions, some legislators in other states have taken notice and are taking precautionary measures to enact laws in their own states to prohibit companies from taking these types of actions. For example, legislators in Massachusetts legislators have recently introduced a bill prohibiting the use of such “waivers” by an employer. The bill, if passed, would make it illegal in Massachusetts at least, for private companies to dictate when and where an employee’s rights to compensation may be exercised.
In a recent United States Supreme Court decision, the validity of these type of
binding-arbitration agreements” were upheld by the Court. Thus, when used effectively and thus far legally, these contracts may act as a barrier between injured people and the courthouse, unless they live in a state that has taken legislation action to prohibit such agreements. At this time, in Maryland at least, no such legislation exists. Therefore, be careful what you sign, especially if you work in a dangerous job where the likelihood of injury is higher than normal.