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Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation System (Part I)

This is the first entry of a series on the Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation system. The purpose of this series is to inform our readers about the basics of the Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation law. This series will also address certain aspects of the Longshoreman and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.

What is Workers’ Compensation?

The Workers’ Compensation system was initially devised to address the confounding number of injuries sustained by workers in the course of their employment, and the inability of traditional tort law to provide relief for these workers. Traditional tort law required injured workers to prove that the employer was negligent by not providing a safe work place, safe tools, and a sufficient number of co-workers to safely perform the job. However, the employer could avoid liability by pleading contributory negligence, assumption of the risk, or by alleging that the injury was caused by a fellow worker. Most employees were not able to collect damages under this system. Even when employees could prove negligence on the part of the employer, the traditional tort system took far too long in cases where injured employees receiving no income or could not afford costly medical treatment for their injuries. With these issues in mind, the workers’ compensation system was devised.

Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation System

The Workers’ Compensation act is intended to “impose upon the employer the burden of taking care of the casualties occurring in his/her employment, thus preventing the injured employee from becoming a public charge.” See Geigy Chemical Corp. v. Zuckerman, 106 R.I. 534, 541 (1970). The objective of the Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation system is to provide an efficient and cost effective way to compensate employees injured at work for medical expenses and lost wages. The employer buys an insurance policy to cover injuries to employees in the workplace. The employer’s insurance company pays claims that are covered under the employer’s insurance policy.

The system was designed as a compromise between employers and employees. The Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation system is a form of no fault insurance. In other words, you do not have to prove that your injury was caused by someone else’s negligence or wrong doing in order to collect benefits. In fact, a work injury can be caused by the employees own negligence and they still may collect benefits.

However, injured employees may not collect money for pain and suffering as they would in a typical negligence claim litigated under principles of tort law such as an automobile accident or a slip and fall. In addition, injured employees only receive a percentage of their lost wages as calculated by a formula set forth in the Workers’ Compensation Act. However, just like in a negligence claim, the injured employee may receive benefits for permanent scarring or loss of function to certain body parts resulting from the accident at work.

The other critical element of the Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation system is that benefits are limited in duration. Sweeping law changes to the Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation Act in 1990 and 1992 created a system whereby it is nearly impossible for an injured employee to receive more than six years of weekly workers’ compensation benefits replacing their lost earning when they are partially disabled from work (that is when they can perform some forms of work but not their former job).

Workers’ Compensation benefits are inherent in every employment contract written or not. Certain conditions must exist for an injured person to be eligible to collect benefits. The injured person must be an “employee” as defined by the Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation Act. The employee must have been hired in Rhode Island or injured in Rhode Island.

There are sections of the Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation Act that exclude certain people from being covered by the Act. In general, employers with one or more employees are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance. Sole proprietors, partners, certain real estate, agricultural and domestic service employees are not covered. Police, firefighters, and federal employees are covered under different compensation programs. Municipal employees are only covered if the municipality has chosen to be covered. Independent contractors are not covered. Whether or not someone is defined as an independent contractor is complicated and could be the subject of its own article.

This was meant of a very broad overview of workers’ compensation and the Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation system. There are clearly many more details and nuances involved in the system which we will attempt to cover in future blog entries.

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