It is important to know what kind of law you want to practice. Sounds simple enough, but it can be difficult to decide what area you want to go into. The areas of law are endless, numerous claims can be brought and there is an infinite source of clientele. You also only get three years in law school to figure out what you might be good at and like practicing! This is further complicated when you have to meet certain requirements to graduate and if you want to take classes in order to help prepare you for the bar exam. So what is law student supposed to do? Once you are finished learning the basics of the law in your 1L year, you have the chance to get your feet wet in other specific types of law.
In your upperclassmen years, you get to choose electives that fit your interests so that you can learn about a type of law that you may want to practice. One of my electives in my 3L year was workers compensation. This course gave me an overview of workers’ compensation in general, however was tinted with Michigan law (as that is the state where my law school is located). Here is a quick overview of this course so you have a general understanding of workers’ compensation law before you take it.
Workers’ Compensation in General
A workers’ compensation course can vary depending on what state your law school is located in and what other courses your law school offers. Workers’ compensation laws govern on-the-job accidents in which an employee is injured or killed. Workers’ compensation is primarily state-based, and most states have created laws that make workers compensation systems compulsory. Thus, the basic principle is that an employee is automatically entitled to certain benefits whenever he or she suffers a “personal injury by accident arising out of and in the course of employment” or suffers an occupational disease. Workers compensation relief is the exclusive remedy for employees injured on the job and issues of negligence and fault are largely immaterial in these cases. Employers are usually required to have workers’ compensation liability insurance or have some sort of “self-insurance” that covers workers’ compensation. Most courses teach the basic structure of workers’ compensation but differ in terms of the coverage formula (i.e. when is workers’ compensation involved), how to handle pre-existing conditions, the specifics of benefits, and other topics like disability and wage loss. Workers’ compensation is a topic that is covered on the essay portion of some bar exams, including in Michigan. Thus, many law schools offer workers compensation as a course and highly recommend taking it.
In order to determine if an injury is covered by workers’ compensation, you need to look at the coverage formula in the state which is usually contained in the beginning of the workers’ compensation act. Specifically in Michigan, an “employee, who receives a personal injury arising out of and in the course of employment by an employer who is subject to this act at the time of the injury, shall be paid compensation as provided in this act.” See Michigan’s Worker’s Disability Compensation Act of 1969.
Sounds simple enough, but a lot of time and debate goes into what the coverage formula actually means. One issue that comes up frequently is the definition of an “employee.” Nowadays, many people are classified as “independent contractors” who are not covered by most workers’ compensation acts. Thus, many courses in workers’ compensation will focus on how to determine if someone is an employee (who is covered by the act) or an independent contractor.
On the Job Injuries
Another topic that is discussed frequently is what it means to have an injury occur “on the job.” Many workers’ compensation acts use the terms “arising out of” and “in the course of” employment. “Arising out of” usually is considered the causation element, meaning the injury was work related. “In the course of” usually is the spatial element and refers to the time, place, and circumstance of the injury. Some states have a one-prong test, requiring just one element – arising out of OR in the course of employment. Others, like Michigan, have a two-prong test, requiring both elements.
Related to the issue of arising out of and in the course of employment are issues that arise from an employee having pre-existing conditions. In most states, an employee is allowed to make a claim for workers’ compensation benefits even if he or she previously had some sort of condition or injury. However, claim to benefits must still be related to their employment, so extra proof is usually necessary. For example, in Michigan, an employee must prove that there is a medically distinguishable condition comparing the pre-accident injuries and the post-accident injuries.
Workers’ Compensation Benefits
In most states, there are three primary workers’ compensation benefits that are given to the employee: 1) reasonable and necessary medical expenses (including rehabilitation expenses), 2) vocational rehabilitation, and 3) weekly wage loss benefits. Medical expenses are automatic and unlimited so long as they are related to the subject accident and are meant to compensate the employee’s medical providers for reasonably necessary services related to the employee’s care and rehabilitation. Vocational rehabilitation usually helps provide training or resources to help workers acquire new employment. This benefit is paid when the employee is disabled and cannot return to work, but may be able to work in another field or position with more education or training. Most states determine what specifically can be paid for vocational rehabilitation and how long an employee may receive it. Weekly wage loss benefits are paid to employees that are disabled (totally or partially). A compensable disability is an inability, as the result of a work-connected injury or disease, to perform or obtain work suitable to the employee’s qualifications and training. Each state has their own method of calculating how disability is determined, what limits are placed on the wage loss benefits, and how long an employer must pay this benefit.
This is a quick overview of workers’ compensation, so some professors or law schools may organize the course differently and the specific substantive law may change depending on your state. However, this snapshot should give you a general understanding on what to expect from a workers compensation class. Armed with this knowledge, you will be able to successfully navigate through this upperclassmen course!
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