In 1915, steel, coal, and industry were the lifeblood of Pennsylvania. Devastating injuries, many resulting in death, ran rampant. A worker could have a limb caught in a machine or die due to working conditions, with no compensation.
The institution of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act on June 2nd of that year achieved a compromise between employers and employees that has lasted a century. Workers gave up a constitutional right to sue for damages in favor of guaranteed compensation from their employers. The Act was always meant to ensure payments for lost wages and medical care for injured workers. Now, 100 years later, attorneys are fighting to ensure that the humanitarian intention of the Act is not diluted in today’s construction of the law.
A centennial should be a celebration of such an enduring law, but part of the celebration is tainted. There have been numerous attempts to strip workers’ of their rights to compensation and a rash of unfavorable treatment by judges who are not giving workers the benefit of the doubt. Again and again in the courtroom, judges are favoring the testimony of the one-time medical examiner who has spent perhaps an hour or less with the injured party, rather than the client’s continual treating physician. While the Act provides a strong framework for protecting workers’ rights, it is not being upheld by trial-level judges as it was intended.
This was not always the case. In the 1920s, when the U.S. Supreme Court routinely struck down state laws that sought to help workers by providing minimum wages, maximum hours, and the ability to organize into unions, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania provided compensation for workers injured and killed on the job in cases like Malky v. Kiskiminetas Valley Coal (Pa. 1924). Even in recent years, our Supreme Court has generally found in workers’ favor when it has decided workers’ compensation. Examples are Phoenixville Hospital v. W.C.A.B. (Shoap) (Pa. 2013) (hospital worker), Payes w. W.C.A.B. (Pa. State Police) (Pa. 2012) (state trooper); and Lancaster General Hospital v. W.C.A.B. (Weber-Brown) (Pa. 2012) (nurse). If our High Court can see that the Act should be construed to benefit injured workers, there is no reason trial-level judges cannot follow the Court’s example and do the same.
“I think that everyone who works should understand that you gave up a constitutional right in 1915 to sue someone for damages in exchange for workers’ compensation,” Managing Partner Sam Pond said. “Part of that deal was supposed to be that you got a better chance to speak when you got to the courtroom, a liberal construction of the law in your favor and your doctor was supposed to get more weight in regards to your testimony. We’re not seeing that applied and that’s very important in making sure that we have judges applying the law in Pennsylvania.”
Not only is the law not being applied correctly, workers’ compensation laws throughout the United States are countlessly being attacked. Recently, ProPublica and NPR released an in-depth report about the deconstruction of workers’ compensation in America. Depending upon the state someone is injured in, he or she could receive thousands less for the same injury. An arm is worth $389,910 in Pennsylvania, but only $48,840 in Alabama, according to NPR and ProPublica Injured workers may also have a more difficult time choosing their own doctor for treatment. Pennsylvania is one of the states where workers are subjected to regulations about which doctors they may see. These limitations severely impact the quality of care workers are receiving and strain their finances.
Attorneys have a tremendous amount of responsibility to defend their clients’ rights in light of these attacks to workers’ compensation.
“There are thousands of people injured daily that may never get justice without those of us who study, practice and defend their rights within the law,” Partner Jerry Lehocky said.
It is up to the attorneys, judges and politicians to take ownership of the Act and do everything in their power to uphold its original intent. Political action is one of the most effective ways these groups can make a mark on PA workers’ compensation.
Pond Lehocky places a strong emphasis on political action. We educate our clients and referral partners on the latest developments in workers’ compensation through lectures, seminars and educational materials. We believe that it is our responsibility as a firm to exponentially grow our level of participation and contribution to the political arena.
“Politically, there is no firm that does more for its clients and all injured workers in Pennsylvania than Pond Lehocky,” Partner Dave Stern said.
The emphasis must be brought back to ensuring that the essence of the Act is not forgotten. The law must be liberally constructed in favor of the injured worker. The benefit of the doubt must be given to the injured worker as well, and judges need to take that into account when rendering decisions. It is a very important time for the future of Pennsylvania workers’ compensation. By working hard to strengthen our political initiatives and ensuring that lawmakers with pro-worker agendas are in power, there can be a bright future for injured workers.