Are there Pain and Suffering Damages in Workers’ Compensation?
As a workers’ compensation claimants’ firm, our clients regularly ask us how they can sue their employer for pain and suffering following their work injury. This question naturally flows from media reports of large personal injury verdicts. However, because of the exclusive remedy mandate of the Pen
The Genesis of Pennsylvania Workers' CompensationNot having been through the process, many of them assume that, like a personal injury case, they can get pain and suffering damages, which can far exceed the standard wage loss and medical benefits payable to workers* compensation claimants. They ask us if they can be compensated for not just the physical pain caused by their injury, but the associated anger, depression, sleep disturbance or even PTSD.
Naturally, our *you can*t* answer assumes there is no associated third party (motor vehicle accident, product liability) litigation, where the plaintiff may indeed be entitled to pain and suffering damages.
The answer is long-established, having been enacted in 1915 with the Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Act. The Act itself is a child of the Industrial Revolution, a compromise legislation designed to protect not just injured workers, but also their employers.
With the Industrial Revolution, as the Commonwealth*s economy shifted from one of agriculture to manufacturing, injuries became more commonplace. As the populace gravitated toward cities to earn a higher wage, employers hired more employees which in turn generated more work injuries.
Of course, employers of the Industrial Revolution were not renowned for their enthusiastic safety programs. Railroads, mines, and manufacturers were the most common sites of workplace injuries and even deaths. Before the turn of the century, the fatality rate following work accidents was some 30 times worse than today*s.
There being no Workers' Compensation Act before 1915, injured workers* sole venue was the civil process, which was a remarkably difficult process that could take years to reach a result. During this time, the employee likely had no source of income, or at the very least a reduced earning capacity.
From the employers* perspective, one successful suit against them could mean a substantial verdict against the employer. That verdict could come of course, if the plaintiff could prove that the employer was negligent. Naturally, an employer would aim to divert the blame to the actions of the injured worker or a coworker. Employers could defend by arguing that the employee was contributorily negligent, or had issued the risk of working in a factory.
A 1900 survey revealed that only 50% of injured of workers killed on the job yielded success in the civil courts. And even that success was compromised: most of the cases only yielded only half a year*s worth of wages.
Unfortunately, because of that lack of success in civil courts, employees would likely become wards of the state. If an injured worker lost his suit in the court of common pleas, it was now the Commonwealth that would bear the burden of work injuries. Once healthy and able workers were now signing up for assistance programs, funded by taxpayers. With the threat of more work injuries came the threat of more wards of the state.
The Legislature Makes a CompromiseSo here was the conflict: employers feared the potential for huge civil verdicts against them. Just a few successful suits could be financially devastating to employer. Workers feared being left without an income if injured at work. The state wanted to avoid responsibility for the lives of individuals who had suffered disabling work injuries.
The legislature did what legislatures do. Following earlier European efforts, they created a compromise. Employers would now have to insure themselves in the event of work injuries, regardless of fault. As further compromise, those same employers would now enjoy immunity from suit in the court of common pleas. Which also meant immunity from awards for pain and suffering. The only benefits payable were now wage loss and medical expenses. And, in rare occasions, specific loss benefits for the loss of a body part, scarring or hearing or vision loss.
The civil process was replaced by an administrative process that was intended to take less time. A civil suit that might have taken years would now possibly take less than a year. This was a consequence of more liberal evidentiary rulings - evidentiary rules were relaxed in this new arena.
New York was the first state to enact a Workers* Compensation law in 1909. Between 1911 and 1921, 44 states enacted similar legislation, with Mississippi passing its act in 1948. Today, all states have well-established Workers* Compensation legislation, all varying in specifics but maintaining similar compromises.
One exception to this compromise remains: under section 305 of the Act, an employee can sue in the court of common pleas if the employer fails to maintain insurance.
Over the long term, the policy that ended pain and suffering damages for work injuries has seemingly paid off for those involved. Employers no longer face the threat of potentially devastating awards. The Commonwealth does not fear being burdened with injured workers becoming wards of the state. Employees are assured of being insured for injuries sustained at work and have a remedy available to them through what is often an expedited legal process.