Those persons injured on the job are often entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Workers’ compensation is referred to as an exclusive remedy, meaning that it is often an injured employee’s only option for recovering damages as a result of their accident. Simply put, an employee cannot sue their employer for negligence if they are subject to worker’s compensation. Workers’ compensation is a no-fault system, in that, the injured employee will receive benefits for lost wages, medical care and rehabilitation, even if the worker plays some role in causing the injuries.
The purpose of the no fault system is to provide a quick and easy remedy for on the job injuries. In order to do so, The Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act outlines specific damage awards for various injuries as well as sets weekly pay caps for those injured on the job. However, Alabama’s Workers’ Compensation laws and monetary payment schedules have not been upgraded in decades.
In May, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Pat Ballard found the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act to be unconstitutional. Judge Ballard was presiding over a 2013 case, Nora Clower vs. CVS Caremark. In that case, the worker injured her back while on the job at CVS Caremark. According to an affidavit filed with the Court, Clower earned an average weekly wage of $355 at the time of her injury. However, under the current Alabama Workers’ Compensation laws, workers hurt on the job are eligible for a maximum of $220 per week in compensation once their injury has stabilized. This cap dates to 1987, when $220 per week was above minimum wage and poverty levels.
However, in today’s terms, $220 per week is significantly below the two levels. As Judge Ballard pointed out:
There is little credibility in telling two injured workers, both of whom are 99 percent disabled due to work injuries, that they both get $220 per week, when one earns $8.50 per hour for a 40-hour work week, and the other earns an annual salary of $125,000. In fact, $220 a week for a family of four is more than half below the poverty line.
Accordingly, Judge Ballard found the Act unconstitutional, but stayed his order for 120 days to give the Alabama Legislature time to pass new laws. Additionally, Judge Ballard found the current 15 percent contingency fee cap set forth in the Act unconstitutional as well. The 15 percent cap often prevents injured workers from obtaining legal counsel as the cases simply aren’t economically feasible to pursue. As Judge Ballard noted, this cap fails to afford due process of the law.
Although Judge Ballard’s order does not affect other cases or nullify the Act because it came from the trial court level, it certainly puts a spotlight on a glaring flaw with Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act. Our lawyers having litigated workers’ compensation cases in Alabama, as well as several surrounding states, workers injured on the job in Alabama are compensated at an alarmingly lower rate than their counterparts in other states. In Alabama, many serious injuries are codified into what is known as “scheduled injuries.”
The legislature took it upon themselves to pre-determine what an injured worker will receive for a given injury. For instance, if your hand is amputated, the Alabama legislature determined that you are entitled to $37,400. If you lose your arm, that loss was determined to be worth $48,840. An amputated thumb is worth $13,640 and all other digits are under $10,000. Any reasonable person would say these caps are far too low to adequately compensate someone forced to live the remainder of their life without an appendage.
Hopefully Judge Ballard’s Order will be the catalyst needed to re-write the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act. We should have laws that both protect workers on the job and also adequately compensate them when they are injured. No longer should an Alabama worker have to be subject to an outdated and grossly unfair set of Workers’ Compensation laws.
If you need more information on this subject, contact Evan Allen, a lawyer in our firm’s Personal Injury & Products Liability Section, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Evan.Allen@beasleyallen.com.