Farm Accidents: Worker’s Compensation or Civil Lawsuit?
I may be a St. Louis City trial lawyer, but I have two pairs of Justin Roper boots, a pair of Rockies jeans, a four star beaver-fur cowboy hat and yes…. farm accident cases. I fully admit that twenty years ago, I didn’t know what a combine was, but having farmers in my extended family forced me into the world of cow patties and four wheelers. I have since been exposed to cases involving falls in grain bins, machinery mishaps, legs being torn off by augers, bodies being sliced by cables that break and fly through the air, etc. Farm work is dangerous and no place for my city lawyer stiletto heels. But, farms are a place for a big city trial lawyer’s experience and I’ll share a little of that experience with you today concerning where a suit/claim is filed when a farm accident occurs.
There are more than 2 million farms in the United States. Farms vary greatly in their size from small, family-run farms to large production facilities with million dollar sales. No matter the kind of accident on a farm, the first question is whether we file a civil suit in a court of law or file a workers compensation claim. And the answer is…. it depends. Even though you may have been injured on the job, not all farm accidents are covered by Missouri Worker’s Compensation laws. In ’78, Missouri amended its worker’s compensation laws related to farming. These laws created an exemption for employers of farm labor from carrying workers’ compensation insurance, meaning your injury case would be filed in a civil court (the kind of court where car accident cases are normally filed). However, farm employers of non-farm labor are required to carry worker’s compensation insurance if they have five or more employees. If laborers work more than 5-1/2 consecutive work days per year, then each counts as an employee.
Needless to say, it is not easy to determine where to file a claim/lawsuit and it most likely requires the expertise of a Missouri farm accident trial lawyer. For example, the average employee may not know that last year the Court of Appeal in Missouri in State ex. rel. KCP&L Greater Missouri Operations Co. v. Cook, — S.W.3d —-, 2011 WL 4031146 (Mo.App. W.D. 2011), held that occupational disease claims (like carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome, & mesothelioma), are not subject to workers’ compensation’s exclusive remedy. Under the Cook decision, an employee with a work-related occupational disease may now choose between bringing a workers’ compensation claim with the Division of Worker’s Compensation or file a lawsuit for damages.
Pros & Cons of Farm Accidents Being Covered By Missouri Workers’ Compensation:
The Pros of Your Farm Accident Case Being Handled Under the Worker’s Compensation System:
In addition to being a simpler and more flexible system as far as evidence goes, worker’s compensation gives employees way more assurance they will get some compensation for their injuries than if the case was filed in a civil court. In fact, unlike a civil case, you can potentially get temporary weekly disability benefits, medical paid for by the employer, and reimbursement for expenses… all before a formal administrative hearing (trial) on the case.
A huge benefit in worker’s compensation is that you do not have to prove your employer was negligent, like you do in civil court. In fact, you can even be entirely at fault and recover under worker’s compensation! While you can be penalized for violating a safety statute or using drugs or alcohol on the job, you are generally way better off in workers compensation if the accident was your own fault. You also avoid unpredictable juries and strict judges who throw out evidence that does not conform to the strict rules of civil suits.
As a worker’s compensation lawyer, I can generally tell you a range of what various injuries are worth in the workers’ compensation arena, assuming we know your average weekly wage and your permanent disabilities related to your injury. This predictability is the benefit of the Missouri Worker’s Compensation system. But, keep in mind, employers are benefiting from worker’s compensation coverage too. They are limiting their liability for farm accidents to the coverage under the workers compensation insurance policies. Once again, farm accident law is tricky and you should consult with a Missouri farm accident trial lawyer, like myself to analyze your claim.
The Cons of Your Farm Accident Case Being Under the Worker’s Compensation System:
The biggest disadvantage to the farm employee (who often sustains major injuries) is that you have no chance of the million dollar verdicts you see in farm accident cases filed in civil court. The value of your case if it is a major injury is often less in worker’s compensation hearings. You get no compensation for pain and suffering. No compensation for the suffering of your spouse when he/she had to be your caregiver. No jury of your peers to feel sorry for you. Worker’s compensation is often an almost emotionless system of numbers and charts. The Administrative Law Judges at the Division of Worker’s Compensation have generally seen every type of injury many times and usually place an injury in a specific disability range (which predicts the dollar value) to be consistent in their rulings and opinions. No run-away verdict is possible.
There is also a shorter statute of limitations in workers’ compensation (2 or 3 years depending on the facts) than in civil personal injury suits (5 years).Worker’s
In the workers’ compensation system, workplace exposure to a hazard must be the “prevailing factor” of the injury in farm accident cases and farm occupational disease cases… not just the proximate cause like in civil court. You can thank Missouri tort reform in 2005 for that higher standard. And no, I won’t be sending a Christmas card to Blunt anytime soon. With a pro-employer legislature in Missouri right now, it would not be surprising to see additional amendments that make worker’s compensation cases more difficult to prove.