Injured on the Job in Alabama? Know Your Rights!
Alabama worker's comp law provides two basic benefits after a workplace accident: Payment of work-related medical bills and payment of 2/3's of your average weekly wage during the time you are unable to work. In the event you are unable to return to work, or you return to work with a permanent physical limitation, Alabama law also provides for a lump sum settlement based upon either (1) your medical impairment rating, or (2) your vocational limitations. Additionally, if your injury was caused by the negligence of a third-party (not your employer), you can sue the third party and recover compensation not allowed by basic workman compensation law.
The employer or workers comp insurance carrier must pay for all accident related medical treatment. Because the employer must pick up the tab, Alabama law allows them to choose the facility or physician. The result of all of this is that the employer routinely picks the most conservative doctors who shy away from expensive diagnostic studies or surgery. The goal of the workers compensation carrier is to get the employee back to work and off their tab. For the employer, less down time for the employee and minimal medical treatment helps to keep their job injury insurance premiums down.
Under Alabama law, there is no statute of limitations for payment of workplace injury treatment. The employer must pay for all reasonable medical treatment caused by the job accident, regardless of whether a lawsuit is filed. This duty of the employer lasts for the life of the employee so long as the treating physician relates his treatment to the work accident.
As stated above, the employer gets to choose the doctor for the employee. With few exceptions, the employer only has to pay for medical treatment by "authorized" physicians. Frequently, the employee is not satisfied with the workers comp doctor. In this event, the employee is allowed to choose from a panel of four alternate physicans picked by the workers comp insurance carrier.
Average Weekly Wage Payments
During the time the employee is unable to work, the employer must pay him 2/3's of his average weekly wage(aww). This is calculated by adding up the employee's gross income over the past year and divding by 52. The Alabama legislature has reasoned that if the employer were to pay the injured worker his full wage, this would be a disincentive to return to work.
Return To Work?
Ideally, the employee finishes his treatment and is able to return to work full-duty. If the employee returns to work without any restrictions, no further benefits are paid. If, however, the employee is unable to go back to work perfroming the same task, Alabama law provides for certain lump sum payments that are either "scheduled" or "unscheduled". The workers compensation schedules separate certain specific injuries from others. For example, certain injuries to body parts are given a specific dollar amount. Finger amputations are a notable example whereby a specific amount is assigned. More severe injuries, such as an arm amputation, are also assigned a specific dollar amount. In this regard, Alabama law awards meager amounts to injured workers, in contrast to most other states' worker's comp law.
"Unscheduled" injury claims are those that are not assignable to a specific limb. For example, back, hip and brain injuires are unscheduled and not assigned a specific amount. In those cases that are unscheduled and the employee has a permanent injury or cannot return to work, compensation awards are typically higher. For injury claimants who have a catstrophic injury such as severe brain damage or quadriplegia, the emplyer will often forego a lump sum settlement and simply pay the worker two-thirds of his wages for life on a week by week basis.
Generally speaking, for the vast majority of injured employees, the only benefits claimable after an on-the-job injury in Alabama are through workers comp. The Supreme Court of Alabama has expressly ruled that the only claim that can be made against an employer after a workplace is accident is for workers compensation benefits. However, a worker can make a claim against someone other than the employer, so long as that other person's negligence contributed to or caused the accident. For example, assume that an employee is told to use the company vehicle to run an errand. If the employee is t-boned by a logging truck while running the errand, he can bring both a workmen's comp claim and a personal injury claim against the logging truck comany and driver. The third-party claim includes mental anguish, pain and suffering, loss of earning capacity and even punitive damages, things that cannot be claimed in the workers comp suit. Plus, third party claims allow for a jury trial, something not allowed in worker's compensation lawsuits.
It is not unheard of for employers to retaliate against employees who seek benefits after a job accident. Luckily, Alabama law expressly forbids employer from terminating or firing employees solely for filing a workers comp claim. For the most part, a worker can expect to resume his employment after finishing the medical treatment. Employers are well aware of the ban on retaliating against injured workers and realize they can be sued for lost wages and punitive damages should they do so.
Settlement of a Workers Compensation Claim
Alabama law requires court approval of a worker's settlement against his employer. Most judges are happy to approve a proposed settlement so long as the right to future medical treatment is kept open. It is not a good idea to agree to a settlement without seeking the advice of an attorney. The workers compensation benefits and rights can be surprisingly complicated and a lawyer can provide a great deal of assistance. The better approach is to obtain legal counsel soon after a significant job related injury, else you risk compromising your rights when your employer approaches the issue of resolving the claim.