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Undocumented Status Not A Bar to Recovery in New Jersey

The Accident.

In September 2012, Fredy Ucelo, then a 17-year-old illegal immigrant, was working at El Nuevo Bodegon in Paterson, New Jersey. Ucelo was operating a table-mounted meat-grinding machine when he lodged his right, dominant, hand within the machine’s metal teeth. After failed surgical intervention, Ucelo was ultimately left with his arm amputated just below the elbow. After undergoing surgery, Ucelo struggled balancing the weight of the initial mechanical prosthesis he was provided. Ucelo then rejected the use of a second mechanical prosthesis — a fairly common occurrence in scenarios where children and young adults lose an appendage.

Ucelo’s counsel admitted that Ucelo was within the course and scope of employment at the time of the incident in dispute’s occurrence; and filed for workers’ compensation benefits. The insurance carrier for the store that employed Ucelo accepted Ucelo’s claim as compensable. However, Ucelo’s attorneys filed suit in The Superior Court of New Jersey, Essex Vicinage. The suit alleged that the machine Ucelo was using was missing a guard for its opening. Furthermore, the suit claimed that the task Ucelo was performing was prohibited for minors by both federal and state statutes due to its being deemed a “potentially hazardous task.”

The claims.

Ucelo’s suit named numerous defendants — including the insurance carrier for the store that employed Ucelo and the company that produced the meat-grinder Ucelo had been operating. There were no jurisdictional issues as to the company that produced the meat-grinder — as said company regularly “did business” in Essex County, New Jersey. It must be noted that in order to lodge such a civil action, Ucelo was forced to surrender any right to workers’ compensation payments forward of the date of the county court suit’s filing. Alternatively, in Superior Court, unlike workers’ compensation court, there is no cap on a petitioner’s recovery.

Ucelo’s suit alleged a series of negligence claims as well as a claim for psychological harm. Conversely, the defense attorneys argued that Ucelo’s accident was the result of plaintiff’s comparative (own) negligence; disputed liability; and that Ucelo’s damages had been worsened due to Ucelo’s own refusal to use the second mechanical prosthesis. The matter proceeded through discovery. However, the company that produced the meat-grinder in question was dismissed shortly thereafter.

In ruling on summary judgment motions, Superior Court Judge Christine Farrington held that Ucelo, though an illegal immigrant, could pursue a lost wage claim due to his status as a minor at the time of the accident in dispute’s occurrence. Judge Farrington continued that Ucelo’s employer was, in part, responsible for Ucelo’s accident.

Shortly after Judge Farrington’s summary judgment holdings — on December 2, 2015 — the parties agreed to a $5.5 million settlement. Of the aforementioned sum, $2 million was used to purchase an annuity for Ucelo’s benefit. That $2 million was paid on January 18, 2016. Post-settlement, plaintiff’s attorney stated that the remaining $3.5 million dollars owed to petitioner was soon to come.

In sum, a 17-year-old illegal immigrant that was injured in a non-fatal manner during both the course and scope of employment received $5.5 million for an accident caused, seemingly, by his own negligence. But how did this happen?

Illegal Status Not Bar to Workers’ Compensation Benefits.

To start, illegal immigrants may receive workers’ compensation benefits in the state of New Jersey if they are injured within the course and scope of employment. At first blush, the aforementioned premise appears contradictory of federal labor law. By way of background the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) — which was passed in 1986 — prohibits employers from hiring illegal immigrants. However, illegal immigrants have the right to file suit under the veil of New Jersey state law. For example, an individual’s immigration status does not affect that individual’s right to pursue civil lawsuits (such as for negligently-inflicted personal injuries) or to enforce contractual agreements.
Illegal immigrants whom are hurt during both the course and scope of employment have the right to pursue workers’ compensation benefits — just as they have standing to bring a personal injury suit. Moreover, illegal immigrants are entitled to the full protections forwarded by the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act. Thus, in the above-discussed matter plaintiff, Ucelo, had the right to pursue all workers’ compensation remedies afforded by the veil of state law.

Exclusive remedy.

It must be noted that Ucelo’s ability to receive workers’ compensation benefits under New Jersey state law does not explain how he obtained proper standing to file a civil lawsuit in The Superior Court of New Jersey. This begs the question: “Why were workers’ compensation benefits not Ucelo’s exclusive remedies?”

New Jersey’s long-standing policy that workers’ injured within both the course and scope of employment are limited to the remedies afforded by the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act is not without its exceptions. Generally, minors are entitled to the same workers’ compensation benefits as other employees. However, if the minor’s employment is in violation of child labor laws, these benefits may be double the normal amount. Such benefits include those afforded via temporary disability, permanent disability and death. In this particular matter, Judge Farrington held that Ucelo could pursue a lost-wage claim because he was minor when the injury occurred; and because the employer was alleged to have caused the injury in question.

In conclusion, an illegal immigrant injured during the course and scope of employment was able to receive a $5.5 million settlement in Superior Court because: first, New Jersey affords the full force of workers’ compensation benefits to illegal immigrants; and second, the injured illegal worker was a minor, and in turn, was afforded the opportunity to pursue a civil action in Superior Court for lost wages.

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For more than 20 years we have represented insurance carriers, self-insured employers, third party claim administrators, and employers before New Jersey’s Division of Workers’ Compensation. Our founding partner, Gregory Lois, is co-author of the LexisNexis “Practice Guide to Workers’ Compensation in New Jersey” (2017, ISBN:9781632838735) and served as Law Clerk to Hon. Joan Mott, Administrative Supervisor of Workers Compensation.

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