Workers' Comp Arbitration Clause Applies to Retaliatory Discharge

Work injuries are a far too common occurrence. If you have been hurt on the job, your biggest concern is probably getting your injuries taken care of and getting back to work. You probably are not going to want to foot the bill for an on-the-job injury and will instead file a workers’ compensation claim. What is truly unfortunate is if you are then fired because you filed the workers’ compensation claim. That is called a retaliatory discharge, and it is a process that is rarely pleasant.

The Supreme Court of Alabama recently addressed a case dealing with this specific issue. InSSC Selma Operating Company v. Fikes, from Dallas County, Alabama, the employee, a certified nurse assistant at a rehabilitation center, was injured while trying to lift a patient. She went to the doctor and after receiving care was told she could return to work. However, she was restricted to light duty. After the employee filed a claim for workers’ compensation, the company fired her.

From there is where things started getting tricky from a legal standpoint. The employee sued claiming she was fired in a retaliatory discharge. The employee wanted to put the case before a jury. However, the employee’s contract with the company included a dispute resolution clause. This clause covered all “employment related disputes.” However, the clause did not cover issues “related to workers’ compensation.”

The question then became whether a retaliatory discharge claim was more related to workers’ compensation or to a general employment issue. The trial court denied the company’s motion to compel arbitration. The company then appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court viewed it differently than I would have. First, the Court focused on the differences between a workers’ compensation claim and a retaliatory discharge claim. Looking at the broader range of damages that can be received from a retaliatory discharge action, the court said that it had more in common with tort law (like a personal injury case) than workers’ compensation. Second, it noted the strong preference of the legal system in favor of arbitration.

I think this decision has some issues. First, “related to workers’ compensation” means just that. The clause does not say just “workers’ compensation” but instead more broadly includes anything related to workers’ compensation. There is no way that one can say with a straight face that a firing because of a workers’ compensation claim is not related to workers’ compensation. Second, this will make it easier for companies to dodge negative press about their retaliatory firings. Arbitration results in cases like this rarely make the news.

If you are the victim of a work injury, it is important that you receive the care you need. If you find yourself in that situation, you will likely need legal help sooner than later. If that time comes, it is important to find a lawyer with workers’ compensation experience. If you are injured on the job, contact Joe Ingram of Ingram Law LLC at (205) 236-3997.

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