Thursday, September 21, 2006

"Repugnant" Companies That Deny Workers Comp for Undocumented Workers

Yet another in a growing number of disgusting news stories about how insurance companies are trying to get out of paying workers comp for injured undocumented workers. It's not enough that they do the most dangerous work in the country, for low pay and suffer a higher and climbing rate of injuries and fatalities than non-immigrant workers. Let's screw them when they get hurt as well.

This article by Liz Chandler in the Raleigh News and Observer tells the story of Francisco Ruiz who, after losing his job in Mexico, crossed over the border to the United States and got a job with the Belk Masonry Co. which offered him $300 a week to work as a laborer for a masonry crew. On Oct. 7, 1997, a crane hoisting Ruiz along with a load of bricks collapsed, throwing him to the ground where the bricks rained down on him.
He broke a rib and injured a kidney, and his right lung collapsed. He also hit his head on the floor, severely injuring his brain's frontal lobe, which controls language, memory and motor function.

Ruiz was in a coma, able to breathe only with a ventilator.

His younger brother, Jose, left his wife, two young children and his job in Mexico and rushed to Charlotte.

Ruiz's wife followed, with a temporary pass to enter the country, leaving her three children behind. When she arrived at Carolinas Medical Center, she found the Virgin of Guadalupe medal in her husband's hand.

Nurses were hoping for a miracle, but at Belk Masonry, a counterattack had begun.

The Companion Property & Casualty Insurance Co. paid his initial medical bills, but adjusters wanted to know all about Francisco Ruiz. When they discovered his illegal work status, they rejected his claim.

The law in North Carolina, as in most states, says that illegal immigrants who are hurt on the job are entitled to compensation. Companies, the law says, must pay injury benefits to "every person engaged in employment ... whether lawfully or unlawfully employed."

But officials at Companion Property & Casualty questioned the law's intent. Why should they pay an alien who lied about his immigration status to get his job? How could an illegal worker technically be considered an employee?
Ruiz took the company to court and won.
It would be "repugnant," the court said, for a company that benefited from a worker's labor not to pay him for an injury. Whether the worker was illegal didn't matter.
The company appealed and after winning several appeals over five years, the case finally reached the North Carolina Supreme Court which refused to hear Companion's final appeal. Another year to settle and Ruize was finally awarded $438,000.

Just another day's work for Companion.
The company was disappointed but not surprised.

"We're always viewed as the deep pocket," said Companion President Charles Potok. "If you're talking about paying somebody or cutting someone off cold, we typically lose."
Deep pocket? How about the the legal obligation of companies and workers comp insurers to pay the costs of workers' deaths, injuries, medical treatment, lost wages and disabilities. -- whether or not they're "legal."

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