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Do employers use workers' comp to avoid injury liability?

Ask any employer that question and you can be sure the immediate response will be, "Absolutely not." But what happens in real life for too many workers in Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere in the country is that companies regularly look to shield themselves from potential liability claims by invoking immunity under workers' compensation law. How successful they may be depends on the state law and the interpretation of that law by the courts when challenges are brought.

The general rule of thumb where workers' comp is concerned is that if you accept compensation under such a claim you are blocked from seeking further damages from the employer for your injuries. But the door might still be open to seeking compensation otherwise as the example of a case out of Wyoming shows.

This particular matter involved the death of a construction worker in 2012. It was witnessed by his father. Both men worked for the same company. According to the legal record, a job superintendent ordered the younger man into a trench box even as the super was operating a large track hoe to dig out the trench area.

While the father watched, the bucket of the track hoe struck his son in the head. Despite the father's efforts to administer first aid, his son died. The dead worker's estate received benefits under workers' compensation.

When the father sued the company and the supervisor seeking damages for his own emotional distress, a lower court granted the defendants' request to dismiss the case. The argument accepted was that the exclusive remedy provisions of the state's workers' compensation law blocked the father's claim.

Wyoming's Supreme Court disagreed, however. Recently it ruled that the father's claim is one for emotional injury and is separate from the accident that killed his son. As such, it says the employer and the job superintendent can't claim immunity under workers' comp law.

Clearly the court's interpretation of the law proved to be different from the company's.

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