by Al Vreeland
In a potentially monumental decision, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Pat Ballard struck down the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act as unconstitutional on May 8.
Specifically, Judge Ballard held that 1989 limits on compensation payments to injured workers and fees for their attorneys were so low that they violated the Alabama Constitution. Currently, compensation payments to an injured employee are capped at $220 per week, no matter how much the employee is paid regularly. Attorneys’ fees are capped at 15 percent of an employee’s award. The judge noted that the compensation payment amount was below the poverty line for a family of four.
The implications are monumental. Although the decision focused on payments and fee caps, the effect would be to strike down the entire Workers’ Compensation Act if the decision holds. If the Act is unconstitutional, employees would be allowed to sue employers for work-related injuries. Employees would be able to recover for medical treatment, pain and suffering, and—potentially—punitive damages.
Judge Ballard stayed his opinion for 120 days to give the Alabama Legislature an opportunity to fix the issue. We expect the case to be appealed.
More information will be available in the May issue of Alabama Employment Law Letter.