According to the Division of Workers’ Compensation, 197,006 workplace accidents were reported in 2007. This led to 34,556 new workers’ compensation claims being filed. In addition, 4,773 “re-opener” claims were filed.
These figures show almost no changes in the numbers of filed cases over the past year, but do reflect an increase in reported accidents year-over-year (approximately 20,000 more accidents reported in 2007).
On June 11, 2008, the Assembly Judiciary Committee took up a bill that Deputy Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D-Union) has been pushing for three legislative sessions to cap punitive damage awards in cases where several defendants are determined to share responsibility for a harm.
In such cases, as soon as one defendant reaches a punitive-damages settlement with the plaintiff, that agreed-upon figure will be used to calculate a ceiling on the punitive damages the other defendants may be assessed. For example, should a defendant judged 20 percent liable for a harm agree to pay the plaintiff $100,000 in punitive damages, then the maximum punitive damages the plaintiff could receive would be $500,000, and no defendant would be liable for more than the share of that $500,000 corresponding to his or her comparative liability.
TMWB is monitoring the progress of this important piece of legislation.
The New Jersey Workers’ Compensation system was the focus of an investigation conducted by the Star-Ledger Newspaper , one of the most widely-read newspapers in New Jersey. The articles (which ran consecutively in April) concluded that “bureaucratic delays, politics and poor state oversight have left thousands of injured workers waiting years for the relief promised by the compensation system.” The three-part article has led to a New Jersey Senate Labor Committee hearings scheduled to begin May 5th in Trenton to examine ways to “reform” the workers’ comp system in New Jersey.
To summarize, the Star-Ledger articles were highly critical of the Department of Labor and the Division of Workers’ Compensation – calling our adversarial benefits-litigation process “slow,” “inefficient,” and “harmful.” The stories in the three-part series focused on claimants who waited long periods of time for benefits (including one claimant who died while awaiting medical treatment). Statistics from the Division of Workers’ Compensation show that the average claim scheduled for a pre-trial conference is adjourned 15 times before final settlement!
The Star-Ledger examined the legal education and professional experience of the current Judges of compensation and noted that very few had actually practiced workers’ compensation law before they became workers’ comp judges. Most had political connections and appointments before they were nominated for the bench; the article called the appointment of comp judges a purely “political” process.
In a related article (“Secretive Board of Insiders Steers Workers’ Comp”, date: May 4, 2008) the Star-Ledger investigated the New Jersey Compensation Rating and Inspection Bureau (NJCRIB), finding that the Board of Directors is dominated by insurance executives and that rate hikes had occurred in the last seven years while the national average premium had actually declined (link).
One possibility that insiders have speculated about has been the creation of a “Workers’ Comp Ombudsman” to assist injured workers as they navigate the system and the institution of an “alternate dispute resolution” process (without attorneys representing the employer or employee). Stay tuned.
The sponsor of a measure to expand damages in wrongful death cases, vetoed by Gov. John Corzine because it could fall heavily on public defendants, has reintroduced it and plans to tailor the bill to the Governor’s concerns. The bill would amend the Wrongful Death Act to allow recovery for mental anguish, emotional pain and suffering, loss of society and loss of companionship. Those damages would be available to to those entitled to intestate succession of the decedent’s personal property, namely spouses, children and parents. Presumably, the new bill will give judges authority to strike or reduce “excessive” non-pecuniary damage awards. The newly introduced bill has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. However, no action is predicted until the fall, after the budget process is completed and the Legislature takes its summer recess.