There are a number of legal issues that recur in workers’ compensation cases. The problem is, from the employer’s point of view, that the cost of buying insurance is tied to the number of claims made. The employer therefore has reason to assert the injured employee is not eligible for compensation. Recurring legal issues include the following:
- Is the injury work related? As a general rule, on-the-job injuries are covered no matter what their relationship to the employee’s specific duties. Although injuries resulting from drunkenness or fighting are not generally covered, there are circumstances under which they will be, as Employee versus Independent Contractor shows.
- Is the injured person an employee? Courts are apt to be liberal in construing statutes to include those who might not seem to be employed. In Betts v. Ann Arbor Public Schools, a University of Michigan student majoring in physical education was a student teacher in a junior high school. 1 During a four-month period, he taught two physical education courses. On the last day of his student teaching, he walked into the locker room and thirty of his students grabbed him and tossed him into the swimming pool. This was traditional, but he “didn’t feel like going in that morning” and put up a struggle that ended with a whistle on an elastic band hitting him in the eye, which he subsequently lost as a result of the injury. He filed a workers’ compensation claim. The school board argued that he could not be classified as an employee because he received no pay. Since he was injured by students—not considered agents of the school—he would probably have been unsuccessful in filing a tort suit; hence the workers’ compensation claim was his only chance of recompense. The state workers’ compensation appeal board ruled against the school on the ground that payment in money was not required: “Plaintiff was paid in the form of training, college credits towards graduation, and meeting of the prerequisites of a state provisional certificate.” The state supreme court affirmed the award.
- How palpable must the “injury” be? A difficult issue is whether a worker is entitled to compensation for psychological injury, including cumulative trauma. Until the 1970s, insurance companies and compensation boards required physical injury before making an award. Claims that job stresses led to nervous breakdowns or other mental disorders were rejected. But most courts have liberalized the definition of injury and now recognize that psychological trauma can be real and that job stress can bring it on, as shown by the discussion ofWolfe v. Sibley, Lindsay & Curr Co. in Workers’ Compensation: What “Injuries” Are Compensable? .
The agent owes the principal two categories of duties: fiduciary and general. The fiduciary duty is the duty to act always in the interest of the principal; the duty here includes that to avoid self-dealing and to preserve confidential information. The general duty owed by the agent encompasses the sorts of obligations any employee might have: the duty of skill and care, of good conduct, to keep and render accounts, to not attempt the impossible or impracticable, to obey, and to give information. The shop rights doctrine provides that inventions made by an employee using the employer’s resources and on the employer’s time belong to the employer.
The principal owes the agent duties too. These may be categorized as contract and tort duties. The contract duties are to warn the agent of hazards associated with the job, to avoid interfering with the agent’s performance of his job, to render accounts of money due the agent, and to indemnify the agent for business expenses according to their agreement. The tort duty owed by the principal to the agent—employee—is primarily the statutorily imposed duty to provide workers’ compensation for injuries sustained on the job. In reaction to common-law defenses that often exonerated the employer from liability for workers’ injuries, the early twentieth century saw the rise of workers’ compensation statutes. These require the employer to provide no-fault insurance coverage for any injury sustained by the employee on the job. Because the employer’s insurance costs are claims rated (i.e., the cost of insurance depends on how many claims are made), the employer scrutinizes claims. A number of recurring legal issues arise: Is the injury work related? Is the injured person an employee? What constitutes an “injury”?
- Judge Learned Hand, a famous early-twentieth-century jurist (1872–1961), said, “The fiduciary duty is not the ordinary morals of the marketplace.” How does the fiduciary duty differ from “the ordinary morals of the marketplace”? Why does the law impose a fiduciary duty on the agent?
- What are the nonfiduciary duties owed by the agent to the principal?
- What contract duties are owed by the principal to the agent?
- Why were workers’ compensation statutes adopted in the early twentieth century?
- How do workers’ compensation statutes operate, and how are the costs paid for?