No one seems happy with the workers compensation system. Employers and their insurers complain that the system is biased in favor of employees, awarding compensation even in the face of fraud, malingering or worse. On the other hand, employees kvetch that workers compensation insurers are slow to process and pay claims, leading to delays in treatment, needless anxiety and unhappy medical providers.
With this background in mind, may an injured employee seek damages directly from his employer’s workers compensation insurer for pain and suffering allegedly due to the insurer’s delay in making required payments?
The New Jersey Supreme Court tackled this issued in Stancil v. ACE USA, ruling in favor of the workers compensation insurer. In Stancil, the employee alleged that the insurer routinely delayed medical payments and ignored a directive from the workers compensation court to rectify this situation by a date certain. In response, the employee filed suit against the insurer in the local Superior Court seeking damages for pain, suffering and physical injury allegedly caused by the insurer’s delay. The Superior Court and Appellate Division dismissed plaintiff’s complaint on the pleadings but, ever the persistent fellow, plaintiff was granted permission to appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court. A good omen indeed.
Displaying unusual deference to the worker compensation system, the Supreme Court ruled that the employee’s complaint could not stand for three reasons. First, the legislature constructed the workers compensation system that eliminated the worker’s right to file suit in the Superior Court. The employee’s suit was inconsistent with that scheme. Second, the legislature had already enacted remedies to deter the occasional recalcitrant insurer. Neither the courts nor an injured employee should interfere with or expand those remedial measures. Finally, the Supreme Court found that the present system worked fairly well for several decades and the legislature had moved quickly and decisively when problems became apparent. In other word, no need to tinker with a system that, albeit not perfect, was working fairly well.
Stancil settles the question of whether an employee can seek damages for pain and suffering from a workers compensation insurer for alleged delays in making required payments. The Supreme Court firmly declined to recognize a remedy beyond that authorized by the Workers Compensation Act.