Only One Bite at This Apple: The Exclusive (Maybe) Remedy of Workers' Compensation

In Mississippi, workers’ compensation laws replace traditional negligence actions against the employer in exchange for a no-fault system of payment to the employee. This exclusivity of remedy is the product of the "bargain" underlying the workers compensation laws. According to that bargain, the benefit to workers is compensation for all work-related injuries without reference to fault of either the employee or employer. Employees, in return, surrender the right to pursue "all other liability." Employers benefit by having the amount they have to pay to any worker capped. Employers in turn agree to assume the financial burden (through insurance) of all work-related injuries without reference to fault.

The exclusive remedy creates immunity to suits for damages by the employee against the employer but only if the employer actually provides the insurance required by the statutes. If the employer is required to provide insurance and fails to do so, then the employee may pursue a claim under the workers’ compensation act or can sue the employer for damages. The employee gets to decide which route to take and, if a suit for damages is filed, the employer is even prohibited from asserting that the employee assumed the risk or contributed to the injury.

The penalty for failing to maintain required workers compensation insurance gets even stronger. The employer (including the president, secretary and treasurer if the employer is a corporation) can be subject to criminal prosecution for a misdemeanor which carries a potential penalty of $1,000 and/or imprisonment of up to one year, in addition to the recovery to which the employee is entitled. A civil penalty up to $10,000 can also be assessed by the Mississippi Workers Compensation Commission.

For contractors, the burden is even greater. General contractors are considered "statutory employers" of the employees of subcontractors. If the subcontractor provides workers compensation insurance, then the general contractor gets the same protections as the subcontractor has. However, if the subcontractor does not provide workers compensation insurance, the general contractor is statutorily responsible to provide the insurance and be liable for payment or compensation to the injured employee.

The potential consequences (damages, fines and jail time) for failure to provide required insurance are too great to ignore. General contractors cannot assume that subcontractors are carrying workers compensation coverage. As a matter of routine, general contractors should require proof of such insurance, together with an acknowledgement from the insurance provider that coverage will not be cancelled without advance written notice to the general contractor. It is also wise for the general contractor to require that the subcontractor’s coverage add the general contractor as an additional named insured.

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