A new Senate Bill recently signed into Illinois law creates changes to the Workers’ Compensation Act that allow workers to bring civil lawsuits against Illinois employers in occupational injury and disease cases.
Recent Changes to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act
Illinois employers have relied on the fact that the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act and the Workers’ Occupational Diseases Act has provided an “exclusive remedy” for workers to recover compensation for certain injuries from occupational illnesses, injuries, and diseases. For many years, workers were barred from bringing claims against employers after a limited time period. The recent Senate Bill 1596 signed into Illinois law by Governor J.B.Pritzker changes those provisions.
Under changes to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act, workers will be permitted to file civil lawsuits against employers in latent injury cases. Senate Bill 1596 will remove all time bars for workers who suffer from latent illnesses and diseases caused by exposure to toxic substances including asbestos, beryllium, radiation, and other similar substances.
State Senators support Senate Bill 1596 stating that previous time limits for filing injury claims and civil lawsuits for occupational illnesses and diseases were inhumane. Many workers exposed to toxic substances in the workplace were not even properly diagnosed until the required time limits to file had passed. Advocates of the bill claim that this created a death sentence for many injured workers because they were not given proper time to seek compensation for their injuries. In many cases of exposure to asbestos, workers were not properly diagnosed with mesothelioma for up to 50 years after exposure.
Senate Bill 1596 clearly states that time limits to file civil lawsuits outside of the Workers’ Compensation Act and the Workers’ Occupational Diseases Act will be allowed. It states that any employee, employee’s heirs, or any other person with legal standing to bring a civil action against an employer has rights to do so without imposed time limits.
How Do Changes Impact Employers?
Changes to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act will have serious consequences for Illinois employers:
- The “exclusive remedy” provision for latent injury work-related claims (injuries diagnosed after the 25-year statute of repose) will be removed from the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission.
- Any worker with a latent injury will be permitted to file a direct civil action against his/her employer. This will also extend to the injured worker’s heirs in cases of fatal illnesses, injuries, and diseases.
- Existing statutes of repose under the current Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act will be removed.
- A plaintiff’s workers’ comp lawyer will be allowed to recover double the amount of their fees, so injured workers can be paid 40 percent of awarded damages, instead of 20 percent under current Workers’ Compensation laws.
Recent changes to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act may strip Illinois employers of their insurance and subject them to unlimited personal liability for latent injury claims. Under old provisions, all general liability policies have a standard exclusion for any civil claims against an employer.
Although state officials support Senate Bill 1596, new changes may bankrupt some employers. Insurance may become cost-prohibitive if insurance providers do not adjust and provide endorsements for work-related latent injury claims. Insurers may not support these types of claims since many latent injuries often result in long-term chronic illnesses, disabilities, and/or death.
Occupational Injury Claims Under Workers’ Compensation
Under current Illinois Workers’ Compensation laws, employees exposed to hazardous substances in the workplace while doing their jobs are entitled to workers compensation benefits for occupational injuries and diseases, whether the injury is due to short-term or long-term exposure. Available benefits usually include:
- Covered expenses for diagnostic studies, medical care and treatment, prescription medications, therapy and rehabilitation, and necessary medical equipment.
- Temporary disability benefits to compensate for the loss of income during any treatment and recovery period while an employee is unable to perform his/her regular work duties.
- Permanent partial disability benefits or permanent total disability benefits to compensate for permanent injuries, disabilities, or bodily impairment due to exposure to hazardous substances.
Exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace can cause acute immediate illness or chronic long-term illness and disease. With certain substances like asbestos, beryllium, and radiation there is no “safe” level of exposure. These substances can cause chronic lung cancer, respiratory diseases, lymphoma, and mesothelioma, even with minimal exposure.
Unlike personal injury claims, Illinois workers’ compensation claims are not based on fault. Even when an employer takes precautions in the workplace to eliminate possible exposure to hazardous substances, a worker is still entitled to benefits, if illness or injury occurs as a result of exposure. The only requirement for a workers’ compensation claim for occupational illness or injury is that exposure to the hazardous substance must have occurred during the course of employment and that the exposure directly caused the illness or injury. The employer does not have to be proven negligent.