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When can a worker's compensation case get into court?

The workers' compensation system was set up to provide an orderly way to resolve workplace injury claims outside of court. When the system works properly, injured workers have the ability to obtain compensation for medical treatment and disability benefits. In exchange, employers can limit their liability for negligent workplace accidents and avoid having to engage in potentially costly court litigation every time a work accident happens. The administrative venue provided by the workers' compensation system can generally resolve work injury claims more efficiently than the court system can.

However, in rare cases it is possible for a work injury claim to move into the judicial arena. When a work injury can be shown to result from an intentional act of the employer, a workers' compensation case can go to court rather than being decided by a workers' compensation hearing officer. A recent case illustrates how this can happen.

One worker killed and two injured by exposure to toxic chemicals

Arkema, Inc., a chemical manufacturer, contracted with a company called Bulk Resources to transfer toxic materials from railcars to tank trucks for delivery to Arkema's customers. On October 8, 2015, a Bulk Resources employee died and two more were injured while they were cleaning a rail car that had not been properly ventilated. A report by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) stated that the death and injuries occurred due to an intentional act, defined as either actual intent by the employer to harm an employee or negligence that's so wanton that the harm would be foreseeable to a reasonable person. On this basis, the injured employees and the family of the employee who died filed a lawsuit in the Federal Court of the Eastern District of Louisiana and in state court in the Orleans Parish District.

Why employers would prefer to stay out of court

For employers, it makes sense to keep work injury cases out of court. Most workers' compensation insurance policies do not cover injuries resulting from an employer's intentional acts. Employers would much rather face a neutral workers' compensation hearing officer than take their chances with a jury - a jury that may side with the worker rather than a large, deep-pocketed corporation. In addition, a jury could award punitive damages, as well as compensation for pain and suffering and other economic and noneconomic losses suffered by an injured worker.

The factual and legal issues in a workplace accident case can be complex. Anyone who has suffered harm in such an accident should seek the advice of an experienced workers' compensation attorney.

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