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New Jersey high court rules on workers' comp claims venues

The New Jersey Supreme Court has decided that cases involving an injury or death can be heard as tort claims rather than workers' compensation cases if there is a dispute over whether the worker is/was an independent contractor or employee. The state's high court ruled unanimously that if "there is a genuine dispute regarding the worker's employment status…the Superior Court has concurrent jurisdiction to resolve the dispute."

The Workers' Compensation Act was enacted over a century ago to give injured workers quick access to benefits. In exchange, they agree not to sue their employer in Superior Court. However, the Act, as the justice writing the decision noted, does not address independent contractors. Therefore, workers "cannot be presumed to have accepted the provisions of the compensation act" until it's been determined that they are/were an employee rather than an independent contractor.

The case in which this ruling was handed down involved a woman hit by a car driven by her employer while the two were running errands. The 59-year-old woman was employed as a live-in maid for an elderly man by his daughter, and was being paid in cash. The daughter struck the woman while parking her car. She lost part of her leg and died a year later from her injuries.

According to the victim's estate, the woman was an independent contractor. A jury agreed and awarded $525 million plus interest in damages in a wrongful death suit. An appeals court, however, ruled that the woman's employment status must be determined by the Division of Workers' Compensation. The homeowners' insurance policy carried by the elderly man had coverage for workers' compensation.

The estate's attorney noted that employers prefer to have cases heard in workers' compensation court because they usually usually award lower damages than if the case was heard in Superior Court. However, he argued that "[t]he Workers' Compensation Statute is not a statute of removal" and that "[e]mployers don't just get to allege it."

The high court's ruling upheld the damages award handed down by the jury who first heard the case. It also upheld and reinstated the jury's wrongful death verdict.

Anyone injured on the job or whose loved one is killed while working is entitled to seek justice and the maximum amount of compensation available. If there is any question about the victim's employment status, it's always wise to seek legal guidance to help determine how to proceed.

Source: New Jersey Law Journal, "Justices Say Trial Courts Can Hear Workplace Injury Cases," Michael Booth, June 11, 2015

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