Workers’ compensation is a no-fault law, meaning that it is irrelevant whether the employer was not negligent or whether the employee was negligent. No-fault law differs from most types of personal injury lawsuits, which require the injured party to prove the negligence of another party before recovering money and which allow a defendant who was not negligent to escape liability.
The rationale behind a no-fault workers’ compensation system can be illustrated by imagining what would happen without it. Assume, for example, that an employer owned a loading dock and instructed its employees how to safely lift heavy merchandise on the dock, requiring them to use a forklift to lift any carton weighing more than 100 pounds. A worker, hurrying to complete his shift, negligently ignored the forklift requirement and attempted to lift a carton weighing 110 pounds and badly injured his back as a result. He had to undergo surgery and became disabled from working at all for six months.
Without workers’ compensation, society would have essentially two different options in dealing with this injured worker. It could decline any assistance and force the worker to fund his own medical care and unemployment, which could be impossible and could leave him destitute. Or, it could provide government assistance such as Medicaid, welfare, or food stamps. This option would guarantee the injured worker’s survival, but at the expense of local taxpayers regardless of any ties to the employer or injury.
With workers’ compensation, the injured worker receives an income and payment for medical care from a private source rather than at government, or taxpayer, expense. It is not the goal of workers’ compensation to punish or hurt the employer, and that is why state laws require employers either to establish a self-insured fund or to buy workers’ compensation insurance. Employers fund the costs of the system but pass those costs along to the consumers of the products or services that cause or contribute to the worker’s injury. The goals of the workers’ compensation system are therefore accomplished: the worker retains his dignity, receives appropriate financial and medical benefits, and the consumer becomes the ultimate source of payment.